SAN FRANCISCO (MCT) — This time the Cardinals were the team with the six-run lead, the momentum, the juice, the leverage.
This time it was the Cardinals who took the upper hand against a lefthanded starting pitcher, chasing him before he could complete the fourth inning.
And, yes, this time it was the Cardinals who looked down from a high place and wobbled. In May, they probably would have fallen. But on a Sunday evening in October, six men from down the right-field line held tenaciously.
The Cardinals and San Francisco Giants entered the National League championship series as relentless, experienced postseason teams that emerged from hopeless situations in the best-of-five division series. Both teams reached the Bay around daybreak Saturday morning. Because their respective series each went the limit, both improvised for their Game 1 starting pitchers.
The Cardinals ultimately held out for a 6-4 win in Game 1 thanks to 51/3 shutout innings from a bullpen once considered a frailty but now perceived as dominant. It is a formula that worked well for the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011.
“When we have a lead in the game and have to go to the bullpen, I feel real good where we’re at,” first baseman Allen Craig said. “Those guys have been crazy good out of the bullpen.”
Sunday’s craziness occurred during the Giants’ four-run uprising against starter Lance Lynn. Working with a six-run lead but on short rest, Lynn surrendered four runs on five hits—four with two outs—before rookie Joe Kelly put down the threat.
Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and closer Jason Motte pitched an inning apiece, with lefthander Marc Rzepczynski getting the fifth inning’s final out with two on base. The Giants managed only two baserunners the last four innings while the Cardinals sat on a lead built largely atop two-run home runs from third baseman David Freese and right fielder Carlos Beltran.
“If we had this bullpen all year there’s no telling how many games we would have won,” said manager Mike Matheny, whose club achieved its league’s second wild card with 88 wins.
“Every out we’re able to get is a big out. For those guys to do that and keep it where it was is a good team win,” Motte said.
The Cardinals did more to Giants starter Madison Bumgarner than the Giants did to Lynn. All the runs came against the two starters, neither of whom finished the fourth inning. The Cardinals toppled Bumgarner for the third time this season while Lynn labored after making four relief appearances in his team’s first four postseason games.
Sunday’s triage started with Kelly entering after 10 hurried warm-up tosses. “It’s probably the quickest I’ve warmed up since I got here,” he said. However, the game slowed upon his entry.
“The starters aren’t going to go seven or eight innings every time,” Boggs said. “The bullpen’s become important for us this postseason. It was for us last postseason. We need to continue what we’re doing.”
A transformation that began with the arrival of young power arms and continued with the July 31 acquisition of Mujica appears complete. The bullpen flexed against the Nationals and remained dominant Sunday.
The Giants have yet to receive a six-inning start in the postseason. The trend imperils them against a Cardinals bullpen that has been especially dominant within middle relief.
Mujica struck out the side in order in the seventh inning before Boggs worked a perfect eighth. Motte allowed a two-out single in the ninth, but the Giants never put the tying run on base once the bullpen entered the fray.
“I know every guy in that bullpen is proud of what we did in that series and feels like we still have a lot to prove and can still feel like we can have an impact on something special,” Boggs said. “We feel like we’re an asset. We feel like we can help this club win. We don’t get talked about a whole lot. That’s probably a good thing.”
After scoring 29 runs in their three wins over the Nationals, the Cardinals jumped Bumgarner for two runs in the second and four in the fourth. After hitting .381 in the division series, Freese, the reigning NLCS most valuable player, drove a two-run home run with his first at-bat of this round.
The bottom of the order that proved so effective against the Nationals wasted little time flexing against another unsuspecting opponent. Two days after turning Game 5 upside down against Nats closer Drew Storen, second baseman Daniel Descalso and shortstop Pete Kozma factored heavily in a four-run uprising that provided a much-needed buffer.
Descalso, the Cardinals’ leader in runs and RBIs against the Nationals, yanked a double with one out.
Kozma, who produced five RBIs with two swings in the previous series, lined a double into the left-center gap to plate Descalso for a 3-0 lead. Jon Jay singled in Kozma to make it 4-0.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy had long since activated his bullpen when Beltran delivered his 14th career postseason home run to push the visitors’ lead to 6-0 and briefly silence the gem by McCovey Cove.
“I feel like this is about the team, this is about us,” Beltran said. “I’m trying to do my part and do good. It feels good things are happening. I can’t explain what it is. Right now the way I feel, I’m relaxed, I’m calm. I’m not trying to do too much. I’m letting the game come to me. I’m not trying to go out there and say, ‘I’m going to do this or that. I need to come through here.’
“Sometimes during the season we caught up doing that. Right now I feel level.”
Lynn rolled through the first three innings without allowing a hit. Diminished velocity and plate umpire Gary Darling’s stringent strike zone found him in the fourth, when the Giants scored all their runs before Kelly came in to get the final out. Kelly was assisted by a nice defensive play from Descalso, who ranged to his right to turn leadoff hitter Jose Pagan’s potential RBI single into a force at second base.
From there, the Cardinals finished it with a group who now represent a strength where before—long before—there was mostly confusion and weakness.