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Memories of 2012 NLCS fresh for Cards, Giants

St. Louis had chance to clinch series at home, but San Francisco won three straight

ST. LOUIS -- The San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals are back at it in the National League Championship Series for the fourth time since 1987, and memories of what happened just two scant years ago have to be fresh in the minds of Redbirds fans everywhere.

The then-defending World Series champion Cardinals were leading 3-1 in the best-of-seven series with a chance to wrap up another NL pennant on their home turf of Busch Stadium, where the current series is slated to open on Saturday (7 p.m. CT/5 p.m. PT on FOX).

It didn't happen, mostly because of an inspired decision by Giants manager Bruce Bochy to start the much-maligned Barry Zito in that crucial game instead of Madison Bumgarner, who was raked by the Cards for six runs on eight hits in a Game 1 loss. Bumgarner, San Francisco's anticipated starter in Game 1 against Adam Wainwright, never pitched again in that series.

"A lot of things happened. Obviously, the Zito game sticks out in everybody's mind," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said on Thursday when asked about that night Zito helped wrap up Game 5 in a neat 5-0 bow. "Barry, who had gone through some things that season, threw an exceptional game and turned it around at that point. Big-time players show up on the big-time stage. He was really good that day and we couldn't get him. Without question, things made a turn that day."

The now-retired Zito, who was left off the postseason roster when the Giants won the World Series for the first time in 56 years in 2010, astounded by pitching 7 2/3 innings of scoreless, six-hit ball in Game 5. He later came back to pitch another gem, besting Detroit's Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series as the Giants swept the Tigers.

The Giants have gone 11-1 in postseason games since Zito's Game 5 performance and are trying to win the World Series for the third time in five years. The Cards, meanwhile, are back in the NLCS for the fourth successive year, trying to vanquish last year's World Series loss to the Red Sox. They defeated the Rangers to win it all in 2011.

For those wondering, the four NLCS appearances in a row are far off the NL record of eight consecutive by the Braves in every non-strike season from 1991-99. The Braves won the pennant five times, but the World Series only once, defeating the Indians in 1995.

The other two times the Giants and Cardinals met in the NLCS, St. Louis beat the 1987 "Hum Baby" Giants managed by Roger Craig in seven games when San Francisco lost a 3-2 lead, and in 2002, the Giants defeated the Tony La Russa-led Cards in five.

Back to 2012. Zito was mostly a bust for the Giants after leaving the A's as a free agent and signing a seven-year contract guaranteeing him $126 million before the 2007 season. He went 63-80 with a 4.62 ERA in 208 games (197 starts) for the Giants during those seven regular seasons. San Francisco had an $18 million option to bring Zito back this season, but the club opted to pay a $7 million buyout instead. No question, the two postseason wins were the zenith for Zito in a Giants uniform.

"This is definitely it for me," Zito said at the time when asked to rank that Game 5 performance along with his career accomplishments that included the 2002 American League Cy Young Award. "There are definitely some playoff memories there, but they were all in a different uniform. This was probably the biggest one for me, especially doing it for the Giants."

That was a bifurcated series for the Cardinals. They won the first three of four games, outscoring the Giants, 18-15. But their offensive spigot turned off. Including the Zito-led Game 5 shutout, the Cards only scored once more in the series after Game 4. The Giants routed them in the last three games, 20-1.

The last two games in San Francisco were won by Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain, who is not active this postseason after surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow.

"We've got to put something on the board there," said Matheny, finishing his first season as the Cardinals' manager back then after La Russa retired. "You have short runs like this sometimes. It's a tough game. It's about the team that's hot. We got to this point by being the team that was hot and taking advantage of it. Then we went on a cold streak. We had opportunities, but we couldn't make it happen the last few games."

The Cardinals were the winner of the first NL Wild Card Game two years ago, defeating the Braves, while the Giants won the NL West title. This time the roles are reversed. San Francisco won the NL Wild Card Game in Pittsburgh before defeating Washington in the NL Division Series. The Cards fended off the Pirates to win the Central and defeated the Dodgers in the NLDS.

In that four-game series, the Cardinals defeated Clayton Kershaw twice, tagging him with 11 earned runs. The Giants beat the Nationals in Game 4 at home just hours after the Cards won, scoring the series-winning run on a wild pitch.

There's no telling which team will be hot and which will not. And like 2012, all that can change midstream.

"It's one of those things you never forget, especially when we had such a good chance early in that series to put it away," Matheny said. "It wasn't from lack of effort, concentration or intensity. We just got outplayed. I'm excited about the opportunity to have a different outcome. I know it's going to be a hard-fought series from both sides. We both have a lot of respect for each other and how we go about our business."

Bochy said about eliminating the Nationals, "You've got to play your best ball to beat them, and our defense and pitching did it."

The Giants are 7-0 in their last seven postseason series and 1-0 in their only NL Wild Card Game. For it to be Giants-Cardinals redux in 2014, with another victory over St. Louis, they'll have to do the same thing.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball.
Read More: San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals