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FRANCISCO -- It has become clear during the past two postseasons that one can never count out the Cardinals.
Last year, they came down to what could have been the last pitch several times in Game 6 of the World Series before defeating the Rangers in seven games. And on Friday, the Cards were again on the precipice of elimination before coming back to beat the Nationals in a five-game National League Division Series.
It's the third time they're going up against the Giants in the NL Championship Series and they've all come in distinct eras. In 1987, they left Candlestick Park trailing 3-2 in the best-of-seven series and won the final games at old Busch Stadium. In 2002, they lost in five.
This year, the Cards open the NLCS on Sunday with Game 1 slated at AT&T Park at 8 p.m. ET and telecast on FOX. They present a whole different set of problems for the Giants, who came from behind to defeat the Reds in five NLDS games after losing the first two at home.
"Well, they're a great team, a great offensive team," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said about the Cardinals on Saturday before the teams worked out. "They can beat you in different ways. They have power. They run. They get those timely hits. They won a World Series last year because of being a balanced ballclub that can do a lot of things. It's not an easy lineup to go through.
"And they have good pitching and a really good bullpen. You've got to go out and play your best ball. That's the only way you're going to beat a team like this."
Here are five keys for the Cardinals to ascend to the World Series for the second year in a row:
1. Chris Carpenter must come up big in his Game 2 start, as he did against the Nats in the NLDS.
This guy never quits. He's overcome a myriad number of injuries in his career including a line drive to the face and more recent surgery to correct a nerve issue in his neck that kept him out until the last weeks of the regular season. But there he was after the Cards split the first two games of the NLDS, pitching like his old gutty self.
Carpenter is the heart and soul of the team, connecting the World Series winners of 2006 and 2011. As he goes, so do the Redbirds. He's a gaudy 10-2 with a 2.88 ERA in 16 postseason starts, only a win behind Curt Schilling, who is placing much of his Hall of Fame hopes on an 11-2 postseason record and 2.23 ERA in 19 starts.
Carpenter left with two out in the sixth inning, having allowed seven hits and no runs in Game 3 of the Cards' win against the Nats. St. Louis will need more of that.
2. The Cards' right-handed hitting must dominate the Giants mostly right-handed starters.
The Cards get a break in Game 1 with left-hander Madison Bumgarner starting for the Giants. After that, it should be a bevy of right-handers with Ryan Vogelsong slated for Game 2 on Monday and probably Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum to follow in St. Louis, although Bochy hasn't made that determination yet.
The Cards have had a lot of success in that department. Against right-handed pitching they were fourth in the Majors this season, batting .270, and eighth with a .747 OPS. Their right-handed hitters also pounded all types of pitching, finishing third with a .274 batting average and the same with a .778 OPS.
In the NLDS, they hit Washington right-handers to the tune of a .297 batting average and an .890 OPS, both tops among the eight teams to ascend to that round.
More of the same will spell big trouble for the Giants.
3. Closer Jason Motte must continue to dominate the ninth inning.
The history of winning World Series championships is a tale of great closers. Teams don't win without one. Mariano Rivera has a record 42 postseason saves for the Yankees, who have won the World Series five times with him. The Braves went to the World Series five times in the 1990s and won only once. The difference? They didn't have a lights-out closer like Rivera.
Motte has evolved for the Cardinals in that role, having gone from nine saves in 2011 to 42 this past season. He emerged last October with six playoff saves and was the winner on Friday when the Cards came from behind in the ninth inning to defeat the Nationals. In that one, he pitched the final two innings.
The Giants, because of Brian Wilson's Tommy John surgery, are not as strong as the Cardinals right now in that area. Two years ago, Wilson recorded the final out in each of the three rounds as the Giants won their first World Series title since 1954. Bochy now uses a bullpen by committee.
With Motte, the Cards should have a decided edge in this area.
4. Adam Wainwright must rebound from his horrendous Game 5 start against the Nationals.
Wainwright picked the wrong night to allow six runs on seven hits, including three homers. He was lifted on Friday night with one out in the third inning and the Cards down, 6-0.
It was very un-Wainwright, who was 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA this past season after missing all of 2011 because of Tommy John surgery. He was a 20-game winner in 2010 and the closer with four postseason saves when the Cards defeated the Tigers in five games to win the 2006 World Series.
Wainwright started Game 1 vs. the Nationals and was more like himself, allowing a run on six hits in 5 2/3 innings during the eventual 3-2 loss. He was not part of the final decision.
The way the NLCS falls, Wainwright will get Game 4 on Thursday at Busch Stadium. In a seven-game series, that could be a pivotal start.
5. The offensive load must be carried by Carlos Beltran, who replaced Albert Pujols.
The Cardinals are a distinctly different team this postseason sans Pujols, who signed a big offseason contract with the Angels and is sitting at home.
To compensate, the Cardinals signed Beltran, who was traded in 2011 from the Mets to the Giants near the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, but was a big bust in San Francisco. Not so in St. Louis.
The switch-hitter has reclaimed much of his former, pre-knee-injury aura by smacking 32 homers and driving in 98 runs. Against the Nats, he batted .444 (8-for-18) with a pair of homers and four RBIs. Pujols, it should be noted, had a comparable 30 homers and 105 RBIs this past season in L.A. But let's not forget his incredible three-homer, six-RBI Game 3 for the Cards in the World Series at Texas.
First-year manager Mike Matheny said on Saturday that you have to deal with the players you have, not the ones you don't have. The Cards have Beltran and he has to fill the Albert void.