10/22/12 1:28 AM ET
Three keys for Cards to win Game 7 and NLCS
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
The Cardinals are 0-for-2 so far in their attempts to punch a ticket to the World Series, and their final chance awaits in Monday's Game 7 of the National League Championship Series (7 p.m. CT on FOX).
1. Cash in opportunities
The Cardinals have created chances against Giants pitching in their last two losses, but those chances are going unfulfilled. While St. Louis is 9-for-22 with runners in scoring position in its three NLCS wins, it has struggled to a 1-for-17 mark in its three defeats.
The Redbirds went 0-for-7 in those situations in Game 5. They left three runners on base over the first two innings -- while the game remained scoreless -- and didn't capitalize in the second when they put two runners in scoring position with no outs.
This is a team that finished fourth in the NL in OPS with runners in scoring position this season and second in runs scored. The talent is there, especially with left fielder Matt Holliday in the lineup after missing Game 6 with a bad back. Now St. Louis must rediscover the offensive mojo it has displayed at times in this series -- and do it quickly.
"It's been the same question all season," Allen Craig said after Game 6. "We'd have a couple games where we're down and come back strong. We have to come back and just do a better job."
2. Know when to reach for relief
Kyle Lohse has enjoyed a terrific year. He went 16-3 for a league-best .842 winning percentage in the regular season and posted a 2.86 ERA. That success has carried into the postseason, with the veteran right-hander holding the opposition to four earned runs in 18 1/3 innings.
In other words, there is plenty of reason to have faith in Lohse as the Cardinals' Game 7 starter. With that said, faith counts for only so much in a do-or-die situation.
The St. Louis bullpen has a 2.22 postseason ERA, with a stable of hard throwers who are plenty capable of missing bats and are reasonably well rested. Manager Mike Matheny must make sure he doesn't wait too long to utilize that strength.
By the time Matheny pulled Lance Lynn in the fourth inning of Game 5, his team trailed 4-0. It trailed 5-0 when he removed Chris Carpenter from Game 6. The Cardinals have shown an ability to rally in the postseason, but a proactive approach to the bullpen -- like the one Matheny's predecessor, Tony La Russa, displayed often in the 2011 playoffs -- might save St. Louis from elimination.
3. Make 'em earn it
Though Cardinals pitchers have struggled over the past two games, the defense has not provided much help. In fact, the glovework has presented a problem throughout the series, with 10 of the Giants' 26 runs being unearned.
In each of St. Louis' three series losses, it has allowed multiple unearned runs. The club has given up 12 unearned runs in 12 postseason games, one away from another dubious playoff record. (The California Angels committed 13 in 1986.) The Cardinals are 6-1 this postseason when they don't make an error and 1-4 when they do.
"The more outs you give them," said Pete Kozma, "the more times they can hurt you."
It's not only about errors, which are subject to the official scorer's interpretation. It's also about other potential plays the defense is unable to make.
Take the first inning of Game 6, when Buster Posey chopped a grounder to St. Louis third baseman David Freese with Marco Scutaro on third and one out. Freese appeared unable to get a clean grip on the ball immediately and took the out at first, with Scutaro scoring the go-ahead tally.
Considering Lohse struck out only about six batters per nine innings this season, he'll need his defense to play a clean game behind him.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.