SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals sure have something about going down to final games this postseason.
So it’s fitting that the two previous World Series champions are playing a winner-take-all Game 7 for the chance to get back to baseball’s biggest stage.
Ryan Vogelsong struck out a career-best nine in another postseason gem in his biggest start yet, and San Francisco staved off elimination for the second straight game, handing St. Louis a 6-1 loss Sunday night to force the deciding game in the NL championship series on Monday.
San Francisco’s Matt Cain and St. Louis’ Kyle Lohse are set to pitch in a rematch of Game 3, won by the Cardinals. There’s a forecast of rain in the Bay Area during the day.
“You’ve seen us the last couple years, it seems, unfortunately, we don’t win until we absolutely need to,” Lohse said. “So, it’s one of those things where we would love to have taken care of business the last two games. We haven’t. ... It’s time to get it done.”
Lohse and manager Mike Matheny will need to get more from the Cardinals’ offense if they’re going to get a shot at defending their title against the Detroit Tigers, who have been waiting since completing a sweep of the Yankees on Thursday.
Marco Scutaro delivered a two-run double and Buster Posey drove in his first run of the series with a groundout in the first inning as San Francisco struck early to support Vogelsong. He followed up Barry Zito’s stellar Game 5 outing in St. Louis with one of his own.
“I just kind of saw the way our team reacted the other night when Barry came out ... early and was throwing up zeroes,” Vogelsong said. “I saw how our team was feeding off that. I just knew that I had to go out there and keep them off the board.”
These wild-card Cardinals sure seem to like the all-or-nothing route in October, while San Francisco thrives on playing from behind.
In five games with their year on the line, the gutsy Giants have pulled out five wins in the postseason. After winning the one-game wild-card playoff at Atlanta, the Cardinals were on the brink against Washington before a remarkable four-run rally in the ninth for a 9-7 Game 5 win in the division series.
“Clutch performances are just guys playing normally in big spots. You can’t be petrified by the situation, and neither of these teams have been,” St. Louis’ Lance Berkman said. “One of the things that makes Game 7’s so interesting is that I don’t think either of these teams is going to choke it away.”
Pitching to chants of “Vogey! Vogey!” from the sellout crowd of 43,070 at AT&T Park, the right-hander didn’t allow a hit until Daniel Descalso’s broken-bat single to center with two outs in the fifth. Vogelsong struck out the side in the first and had already fanned five through two innings.
“This place is going to be loud, I can tell you that,” Vogelsong said of Monday night.
Scutaro had no chance for a collision with Matt Holliday this time. In their first game back at AT&T Park since Holliday took out the second baseman with a hard slide in Game 2, Holliday was scratched about an hour before first pitch because of tightness in his lower back, and Allen Craig replaced him in left field.
It hardly mattered the way Vogelsong pitched.
The Cardinals managed their only run on Craig’s two-out single in the sixth. St. Louis had gone 15 innings without scoring after left-hander Zito won 5-0 on Friday in Game 5.
Vogelsong had his second impressive seven-inning performance against the Cardinals in a week, allowing four hits and one run. He walked one in a 102-pitch performance and lowered his postseason ERA — all this year — to 1.42.
The 35-year-old Vogelsong toiled through the minors, Japan and even winter ball to finally pitch under the October spotlight for a chance at the World Series. His latest impressive outing put the Giants one win away.
“I just believe that it’s my time,” Vogelsong said.
After taking a 3-1 lead back home at Busch Stadium, Matheny’s Cardinals will have to find some offense in a hurry if they want to get back to the World Series.
“Everything is on the line, and we couldn’t be happier to have Kyle Lohse on the mound knowing that we’re going to have another tough day with Matt Cain,” Matheny said. “We’ve had some games where we stack on runs and then we go absolutely hitless, almost, for a while. But any day we know our offense can pull out quite a bit of production.”
These Cards might just prefer close calls. Just like last year.
They won the NL’s second wild card on the second-to-last day of the regular season, then won at Atlanta to reach the division series. The Cardinals rallied from a 6-0 deficit with a four-run ninth inning to stun the Washington Nationals 9-7 in Game 5 of the division series.
The Giants got to St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter again. The Cardinals’ winningest postseason pitcher with 10 victories looked out of sync for the second straight start — and he left with a nearly identical line as in his 7-1 Game 2 loss here last Monday, down to the hits, earned runs, unearned runs and innings.
Carpenter was done in by one big inning this time, too. He allowed six hits and five runs, two earned, in four innings.
Vogelsong reached on shortstop Pete Kozma’s fielding error in the second, scoring Brandon Belt after he led off the inning with a triple. Scutaro came up two batters later and doubled home two more runs.
The 10 unearned runs allowed by the Cardinals are the most in an NLCS, according to STATS LLC — topping the nine given up by the Braves in 2001 and Dodgers in 1985.
San Francisco never faced an elimination game in 2010 on the way to winning the World Series, but has had to go the distance in each of its first two postseason series this year. They became the first team in major league history to come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a best-of-five series by winning three straight on the road, doing it at Cincinnati.
“We’re enjoying this moment. We know how to handle this situation,” San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval said.
They have Vogelsong along for this year’s run.
“He was on top of his game again,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’s probably been as consistent as any starter this year.”
The Giants put pressure on Carpenter right away.
Scutaro drew a one-out walk and Sandoval doubled off the wall in center on a ball that eluded Jon Jay. Posey followed with a groundout to third to score Scutaro for a 1-0 lead.
Scutaro is batting .458 (11 for 24) during the NLCS.
“I don’t really know, man,” Scutaro said when asked to explain it. “Just excited to come to the field every day. ... Being in this opportunity, just being in the playoffs, is amazing.”
While the Giants have won five straight games facing elimination this postseason, the Cardinals have won their last six dating to last year. This is the first time the NLCS has gone seven games since 2006, when St. Louis beat the New York Mets 3-1 at Shea Stadium. Carlos Beltran, now with the Cardinals, struck out looking when Adam Wainwright froze him on a curveball.
“This night, this moment belongs to every player in here and every fan in the stands,” San Francisco right fielder Hunter Pence said. “There’s still another story to be told, and we’ll just have to wait and see if we’re going to enjoy it.”