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Kelly's start should be mere hiccup for Cardinals

With Wacha, Wainwright lined up, St. Louis can overcome lone rough outing

LOS ANGELES -- This was the first inadequate start by a St. Louis pitcher in the 2013 National League Championship Series. But the track records and the individual pitchers who will next be involved indicate clearly that this performance should be one of a kind -- an aberration rather than a trend.

In Game 5 of the NLCS on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Dodgers, facing elimination, roughed up Cardinals starter Joe Kelly and stayed alive with a 6-4 victory. The Dodgers were aided in this effort by another just-not-good-enough performance by St. Louis' offense. The Cards scored four runs, which tied their best single-game output of this series. But they failed to cash in at all on a bases-loaded, no-outs situation in the first inning.

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If you figured immediately that this would come back to haunt them, especially against a proven veteran such as Zack Greinke, you were comprehensively correct.

But then, the Cardinals have scored only 12 runs in five games in this series. The one big variable in their performance Wednesday was the pitching. They had given up only seven runs in the first four games, pitching to a 1.62 ERA.

But in Game 5, Kelly gave up four runs in five innings. This was the only time in this series when a Redbirds starter had come up with anything resembling a blame-worthy performance. With the way the Cards had been hitting, and with the fact the second tier of the bullpen gave up two solo home runs, there was too much damage done for the Cardinals' postseason offense to overcome, even though St. Louis did put the tying runs on base in the ninth.

"Just a couple of mistake pitches with my fastball," said Kelly of the damage. "I had command of pretty much everything else. They just put good swings on fastballs that I left over the middle."

Trouble with the close
The last two times the Cardinals held a 3-1 lead in the NLCS, they lost the final three games of the series by a combined 52-2 margin
Year Opp. Game 5 Game 6 Game 7
1996 Braves 14-0, Atl. 3-1, Atl. 15-0, Atl.
2012 Giants 5-0, S.F. 6-1, S.F. 9-0, S.F.
Courtesy of ESPN Stats and Info

The Cards have been down a very similar road before. Last year, they had a 3-1 lead over the Giants in the NLCS. But St. Louis then lost three straight games, scoring a total of one run in the process. San Francisco went on to win the World Series.

The three-game losing streak to end the NLCS should not happen to the 2013 Cardinals. It could happen, but it should not happen.

Why? For one thing, Games 6 and 7 of the 2012 NLCS were played in San Francisco. This year, win or lose, the Cards will finish this series at Busch Stadium.

The second thing may be even more central than the first. In Games 6 and 7 of the 2012 NLCS, the Cardinals started Chris Carpenter, who was not physically right, and Kyle Lohse, who appeared to have very little left in the tank.

In this NLCS, the Cards will start Michael Wacha, who has been nothing short of phenomenal in his last three starts. He has a 0.64 ERA this postseason.

And then, if Game 7 becomes necessary, the Cardinals will have their ace, Adam Wainwright, available on regular rest. Wainwright took a loss in Game 3 of this series, but he pitched well enough to win. And he still has a 1.57 ERA over three starts in this postseason.

It is true that the Dodgers won't exactly be forfeiting these games. Their scheduled Game 6 starter is Clayton Kershaw, the likely winner of the NL Cy Young Award this season. And for the still-theoretical Game 7, they would have Hyun-Jin Ryu, who shut down the Redbirds for seven innings in his Game 3 start.

But the Cards were 54-27 at Busch Stadium this season, baseball's second-best home record. And they only require one victory, while the Dodgers must win two more games, making it three straight overall. Those factors, plus Wacha and Wainwright, should not add up to failure.

"I feel like we're in a really good position," Kelly said. "We're going home. We've got two really good pitchers going and they've got two really good pitchers going, too. Ultimately, it's just who plays a good baseball game."

'We're not going to San Francisco, we're going home, so I think that's a big plus," said third baseman David Freese. "But regardless, the Dodgers think they can win at our place, and they're going to come out ready to go in Game 6. And we've got to come in there, because I think both teams are going to want to jump ahead early.

"Teams that get this far are always confident, they always believe. Obviously, you go through tough stretches individually, but I think when you've got 25 guys in the clubhouse, you can find a group confidence that can carry over.

"It's just never easy. It just never is. You get this far, and you go on to win the World Series, you've gotten some tough breaks and you've gotten back from some tough things."

If the Cardinals are going to the 2013 World Series, they're going to have to win that right in St. Louis. In the grand postseason scheme, this is not necessarily a crisis situation.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

St. Louis Cardinals, Joe Kelly, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright