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FRANCISCO -- Maybe you've heard the expression that "sometimes the save comes in the eighth inning." Or even the seventh or the sixth. But the fourth, well that's taking it to a bit of an extreme.
But the Cardinals' 6-4 win over the Giants in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series turned on one big pitch from rookie reliever Joe Kelly and one big play from infielder Daniel Descalso -- in the fourth inning. With San Francisco threatening to wrest control of what had begun looking like a laugher, Kelly induced a rolling ground ball from Angel Pagan, Descalso dug it out and flipped it to shortstop Pete Kozma ... and the Giants never scored again.
Improbable as it would have seemed at the time, the 6-4 lead that Kelly and Descalso preserved was the same margin by which the reigning World Series champions ultimately won the game.
"It's only the fourth inning at that point," said Descalso. "There's still a lot of baseball left to be played. But it was nice to kill that rally there without any more runs scoring. So I guess you could call it a turning point looking back, but at the time, we were just happy to escape with only giving up four."
When the bottom of the fourth began, starter Lance Lynn had not allowed a hit, never mind a run, and his offense had staked him to a six-run lead. Marco Scutaro poked a single before Lynn got the next two batters, moving within one out of advancing unscathed. Then things unraveled for the second-year righty.
Hunter Pence hit a ground-ball single through the right side. Brandon Belt hit a bloop single into shallow center, getting the Giants on the board. Still, there hadn't really been a ball hit well enough to cause alarm until Gregor Blanco tripled into the gap in right-center. A double down the line by Brandon Crawford made it 6-4, and manager Mike Matheny finally made the call to the bullpen.
That's when Kelly furiously started trying to get ready. Lynn walked pinch-hitter Aubrey Huff as Kelly warmed, and after some expert stalling by the Redbirds, Matheny lifted Lynn for Kelly. It was the fifth appearance in 10 days for Lynn, and though he maintained that he felt nothing different, Matheny decided he'd seen enough.
"He had a couple of balls off their hands, a couple of balls off the end of the bat -- and then they started squaring some up," Matheny said. "But you look at the whole body of work, and at that point, he still looked pretty good. The ball was coming out of his hand. He was getting underneath a little bit, which has always been a caution sign."
AT&T Park had reawakened after the visitors had taken all the air out, and Kelly had a tough assignment in switch-hitting leadoff man Angel Pagan. But Kelly threw a hard sinker, 96 mph and diving out of the bottom of the strike zone. Pagan chased it and hit a roller up the middle. Descalso dove for the ball, flipped it to Kozma, and the Cards had escaped.
"I thought I had a good chance to at least knock it down," said Descalso. "With a guy on second, I'm just trying to at least knock it down, and if I can get the forceout there to get out of the inning, that's great."
Kelly stayed in to face four more batters, getting into a spot of trouble himself in the fifth before handing the ball to Marc Rzepczynski. But the Cardinals' bullpen didn't allow another run, and neither did San Francisco's. The 6-4 lead that Kelly and Descalso had preserved stayed intact for the rest of the evening.
"It went quick," Kelly said. "I was sitting there on the bench and I knew I might have a chance to get in there. ... I just tried to get my arm loose and get ready as quick as I could. I think I had like one hitter, then a timeout or two, then got sent out there. It went by, it felt like probably 10 seconds of that whole situation, but I was ready to go."