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Title chase down to four as Cards, Giants roll on

Rematch of 2012 NLCS awaits; Royals, Orioles open ALCS on Friday

The quest for baseball's greatest prize began with 30 teams in February, and the field of World Series hopefuls was pared to 10 in September. Now there are four, including two that have some serious October history between them -- the Cardinals and the Giants, headed for the National League Championship Series again.

With the Cardinals clinching their fourth consecutive trip to the NLCS behind a big blow from big Matt Adams and the Giants holding on to beat the Nationals on Tuesday night, the four teams who would ascend to the game's highest peak are set for the next round. The Royals and Orioles have a date in Baltimore for Friday's Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, and now we know it'll be Cardinals-Giants in the NLCS starting Saturday in St. Louis.

In the American League, it'll be a pair of upstarts whose last brush with the World Series dates back decades for both -- the Royals last there in 1985, the Orioles in '83 -- and two cities hungry for more October madness. In the NL, it'll be the two teams that have represented the Senior Circuit in the Fall Classic the last four years and will make it five once they sort out this NLCS, players with postseason experience coursing through their rosters.

In both LCS matchups, there will be untold thrills on the postseason stage, and eventually there will be more champagne spilled for two of those teams once they earn that golden ticket to the World Series.

What we know now is that for the second time in three years and the fourth time overall, two of the NL's storied franchises will play for the right to advance to meet the AL champ. The Giants have won two of the three previous NLCS meetings with the Cardinals, including a stunning comeback to win the 2012 NLCS in seven, clinching in a driving San Francisco rainstorm.

On Tuesday, the precipitation after a Game 4 double dip was in the form of bubbly and otherwise fermented adult beverages, first being poured on Adams and the rest of the giddy Cardinals looking to defend their National League title of a year ago, then spraying all over the Giants clubhouse after another thriller vs. the Nationals.

"It never gets old," said Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright, who was without goggles amid a celebration featuring squirt guns. "We had a good time in here. This is what we play for. We're excited to be in this moment right now. We're going to enjoy it."

In San Francisco, it was a hard-fought, well-pitched series to the end, with just enough offensive pop to make things interesting. Bryce Harper launched a homer -- his third of the series -- into McCovey Cove to tie the game in the seventh, and the Giants concocted a wild rally in the eighth for a 3-2 win.

It was the third one-run game of the series and the 10th overall this postseason, putting the 2014 session on track to make a run at the all-time high of 13 one-run games set in 2011 and '13. The Giants also extended their streak of winning postseason series to seven, a National League record, and have won 10 of their last 11 postseason games.

"Nobody's will is stronger than these guys and nobody's desire is deeper," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of his club. "These guys were determined to get back on that plane and they found a way to get it done. It's in their DNA. They have a history of it."

In St. Louis, the tension was thick through the first six innings as Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw was making his manager look like a genius for starting him on three days' rest, with the left-hander cruising the way he did most of the regular season. But then came the seventh, and when two runners reached base, then came Adams' blast into the bullpen in right field, a three-run shot for a 3-2 win that was part Ozzie Smith, part Jack Clark -- and another dagger in the Dodgers by a Cardinals hitter.

"I don't think I touched the ground the whole way around the bases," said Adams, who at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds had to be seriously defying gravity. "Some people are calling it the 'Big City Leap,' so maybe we'll be able to go ahead and patent that. I was just super excited and really didn't know what I was doing."

Having qualified for the postseason for a fourth consecutive time for the first time in the franchise's illustrious history, the Cardinals became the first team to reach the NLCS four straight times since the Braves went to eight straight ending in 1999. The 2008-10 Phillies and the 2004-06 Cardinals both made it three in a row.

That the Cardinals are facing the Giants extends a series of meetings that have written a few of the most compelling chapters in NLCS history. Cardinals-Giants is now tied for the third-most frequent pairing in LCS play with a fourth series, tying Royals-Yankees and one behind the five by Dodgers-Phillies and Pirates-Reds. You don't have to page back far to find one that really showed what the postseason is all about -- the 2012 NLCS.

In that one, the Cardinals ran up a 3-1 advantage after splitting the first two games in San Francisco, the opening game marked by a hard takeout slide by Matt Holliday on Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro. It took a masterful Game 5 performance from Barry Zito to send the series back to the West Coast, and after a decisive Game 6 victory, the Giants closed it out with a 9-0 win in Game 7 that ended with a downpour and series MVP Scutaro holding out his arms with the raindrops descending upon him, hauling in the final out.

That was the second time the Giants had quashed the Cardinals' hopes of reaching the World Series; the first time coming in 2002 when the Giants marched through a five-game victory. But the Cards did win the first meeting between the clubs in the 1987 NLCS, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win it in seven on back-to-back shutouts started by John Tudor and Danny Cox.

Of course, much of that is ancient history, other than the 2012 NLCS. Several regulars from both sides are back for this one, and the Cardinals have the extra incentive of having won the NLCS last year but fallen short in the World Series against a Red Sox team on a roll.

And here they are again, against their old NLCS nemesis, the Giants. With Wainwright on plenty of rest and Madison Bumgarner on normal rest by the time Saturday's Game 1 rolls around, it'll be a matchup of aces in a meeting of recent postseason stalwarts.

Cardinals-Giants. Orioles-Royals. We have four now, and the postseason party is really getting started.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for You can follow him on Twitter @JohnSchlegelMLB.