SAN FRANCISCO -- The Cardinals have played themselves into an unenviable spot, trailing 3-1 in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series and needing to defeat the Giants in San Francisco in order to ensure at least one more game at Busch Stadium in 2014.
As they seek to become the fifth NL team to pull itself out of such an NLCS deficit, the Cardinals first have to snap a five-game postseason losing streak at AT&T Park. Here are three keys for them to come out ahead in Thursday's Game 5 at 7:07 p.m. CT on FOX Sports 1:
1. Waino needs to be bueno
This game could begin and end with starter Adam Wainwright, who is insistent that after two postseason duds, he has a gem up his sleeve for Game 5. Wainwright combined to throw 200 pitches in his Game 1 starts of the NL Division Series and NLCS, but he was able to cover only nine innings with that allotment. His arm fatigued in that first outing, and his mechanics were the problem in the second one.
Wainwright believes both issues are solved, with rest helping him regain the strength lost from throwing 512 2/3 innings over the past two seasons and a side session earlier this week allowing him time to get his mechanics back in order. The Giants have had success against the Cardinals' bullpen in this series, making it that much more important that Wainwright not only pitch well, but also go deep.
2. Shore up the defense
One of the biggest improvements made by the Cardinals from 2013 to '14 was on the defensive end, where the Cards went from 22nd in the Majors with negative-39 Defensive Runs Saved to second with a plus-64 in that category. The defense has not, however, put its best foot forward yet this series.
An error and a double play not turned sunk the Cardinals in Game 1. Their Game 3 loss ended on a throwing miscue in the 10th. And in Game 4, a missed catch in center and pair of mistakes by Matt Adams at first base provided the difference for the Giants. The Cards have a propensity for playing close games, and it was their strong defense that helped them win so many of them during the regular season. They need to get back to those ways if they want to extend this series.
3. Solve the other starter
The Cardinals have yet to score a run off the Giants' bullpen in 9 2/3 innings at AT&T Park, which means they'd be well served to get some off the starter in Game 5. That starter, however, could be the bigger challenge. Madison Bumgarner was brilliant in 7 2/3 shutout innings against the Cards in Game 1. He scattered four singles and a walk while striking out seven.
Bumgarner has a career postseason ERA of 2.58, the 12th lowest all time among pitchers with at least nine playoff starts, and he has 23 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings this postseason. The Cardinals fared OK against lefties during the regular season (21-18 record with a .254/.330/.388 slash line), but they are likely to be missing one of their best right-handed bats (Yadier Molina) and have another (Jhonny Peralta) skidding through this NLCS. They'll need the left-handed bats in the lineup to shine against left-handed pitching as they did in the NLDS.