Three keys for Giants to beat Cards in NLCS

Three keys for Giants to beat Cards in NLCS

Three keys for Giants to beat Cards in NLCS
SAN FRANCISCO -- Once Barry Zito and friends shut down the Cardinals in Game 5 to send the National League Championship Series back to AT&T Park, the best-of-seven matchup changed dramatically.

The Giants, who became the first team to win three straight road games to close out a postseason series, now have two home games to win in order to reach the next level and participate in a second World Series in three years.

The Cardinals maintain a 3-2 edge, and have shown plenty of pluck on the road -- both in Washington, D.C. and by taking the opener of this series in San Francisco. So when the Giants' Ryan Vogelsong and the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter square off on Sunday in a 7:30 p.m. ET start, both teams will go into Game 6 with the confidence they can overcome postseason adversity.

The bottom line for the Giants: The opportunity, which seemed to be slipping away a bit in St. Louis, is there now to win the NLCS.

NLCS

Here are three keys for them:

Score early, and often
There isn't a lot of value in being the home team unless you can increase the pressure on the visitors by taking an early lead, get the crowd smelling victory and put the opponent on the defensive.

That doesn't have to, but certainly can, start in the first inning -- and Angel Pagan knows how to do it, having delivered two leadoff homers already this postseason. It doesn't have to be with a homer, but if Pagan and No. 2 hitter extraordinaire Marco Scutaro can get on base early, even the scent of an early scoring chance can get the line moving in the right direction for the Giants.

Quality a must
In the two games the Giants have won in this series, the starting pitching has been brilliant, resilient and hasn't allowed the Cardinals to get the merry-go-round going. They've been quality starts, and then some.

While a quality effort by Matt Cain in Game 3 went for naught, the efforts of Vogelsong in Game 2 and Zito in Game 5 show the Giants' 2012 formula can take a page out of 2010: Shut the opponent down from the get-go with starting pitching, and you won't have to worry so much about how much offense may or may not emerge.

It's Vogelsong's turn again, and he had a team-leading 22 quality starts in the regular season -- including a run of 16 straight. After a September swoon, he appears back on track. If he gets the ball to Cain for a Game 7, the Giants are in even better hands -- and the Giants would be right back in the position of knowing a quality start could be their key to victory.

Buster breakout
So far, the Giants have scored runs when they've needed to without their hands-down offensive leader in 2012, Buster Posey.

Pablo Sandoval has done his part, swatting a pair of home runs in this series and giving pitchers something to think about, while actually taking some pitches -- whether he's batting ahead of or behind Posey. The Giants moved Hunter Pence down in the order for Game 4 because he wasn't providing protection for Posey, then moved him back for Game 5, with no results yet.

As his grand slam in Cincinnati showed, Posey can impact a game with his bat like few others. If he's not seeing good pitches, that's one thing. But he's still striking out more than usual in this small sample size, so there comes a time when he has to put wood to horsehide and make something happen.

Nobody gets the home crowd going these days like Posey, and anything he contributes at the plate would be showered with chants of "MVP, MVP, MVP" -- a worthy chant for his regular season, but not for this NLCS thus far.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.