SAN FRANCISCO — Nobody gave them much of a chance of winning the World Series at the start of 2011, and yet they did.
Nobody gave them a chance in 2012, after losing legendary manager Tony La Russa, watching Albert Pujols go off into free agency, having Chris Carpenter injured most of the season, and then losing top run-producer Lance Berkman for most of the season.
But here they stand, winners of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series over the San Francisco Giants, the 2010 World Series champions, proving once again that they must be taken seriously.
Mike Matheny’s Cardinals may still have to prove they can be as good as La Russa’s Cardinals, but they have proven at least one thing this postseason: they can overcome 6-0 deficits and hold on to 6-0 leads.
The Cardinals defeated the Nationals to capture Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series in Washington Friday night, overcoming a 6-0 deficit to win with four runs in the ninth. And on Sunday night, they won Game 1 of the NLCS by holding off the Giants, 6-4, at AT&T Park.
While neither starter — the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner or the Cardinals’ Lance Lynn — pitched beyond the fourth inning, the Cardinals’ bullpen sent six relievers (Joe Kelly, Marc Rzepczynski, Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs, and Jason Motte) to shut down the Giants after a four-run fourth inning.
David Freese and Carlos Beltran each hit two-run homers on two-strike pitches to power the Cardinals.
“The bullpen really stepped up and everyone out there made their pitches,” said second baseman Daniel Descalso, who singled, doubled, and made a great play on Angel Pagan’s grounder up the middle to prevent a run and end the Giants’ fourth.
“I think we’re out there having fun and our experience from being there last year has definitely helped and been a huge factor,” Descalso said.
“We enjoy being on the big stage. We love this time of the year. We’re built for this.’’
Beltran’s homer was the 14th of his postseason career and his .370 postseason average is best all time. The Giants were not able to re-sign Beltran after the season and the Cardinals, after losing Pujols, inked him to a two-year, $26 million deal.
Berkman, who is watching in the St. Louis dugout, said that the Cardinals’ bullpen can be daunting to opposing teams.
“You have a bunch of guys out there who throw 100 miles per hour,” Berkman said. “You know you’re going to get Trevor, Mujica, Boggs, and Motte at the end of the game, and the way those guys throw, it’s awfully tough to come back against those guys.
“Trevor reminds me of Nolan Ryan with his delivery. I never faced Nolan, but I saw a lot of him in Houston.”
Berkman said he said something last season during the playoffs that he repeated last night.
“I made the statement that we had the best team in the league and I think that still holds true,” Berkman said.
And losing Pujols?
“One player is not a team,’’ he said. “You would always love to have Albert, but it takes 25 guys to jell as a unit and that’s what we have here. Everybody has a role and a job to do and everyone goes out and does it. That’s the way we do it here.”
Bumgarner wasn’t on his game, missing with his pitches though that wasn’t the case when he threw a low fastball on the outside corner that Freese blasted for a two-run homer in the second inning.
The scouting report on Freese is that you pitch him away and keep away from his sweet zone, which is upper in. That’s what Bumgarner did, but the ball tailed back ever so slightly.
Over the first three innings, Lynn, who went 18-7 with a 3.78 ERA — but couldn’t crack the Cardinals’ rotation for the NLDS — allowed only a walk to Pablo Sandoval in the first inning. But he coughed up four runs to the Giants in the fourth inning, reducing a 6-0 lead to 6-4.
Neither team, which had rebounded from 2-0 deficits to win the NLDS, were complaining about the quick turnaround and travel woes, though the Giants seemed far more out of synch early on.
The Cardinals added to their lead in the fourth when Descalso and Pete Kozma hit back-to-back doubles to produce the third run, and Jon Jay blooped a single to center to score Kozma with the fourth run.
Beltran, hitting righthanded, ended Bumgarner’s night with a two-run blast.
The Giants responded from the early adversity, just as the Cardinals had been down 6-0 against the Nationals in the clinching Game 5.
In the fourth, former Red Sox shortstop Marco Scutaro, now playing second base for the Giants, singled to shallow center field.
The Giants made two outs after Scutaro’s single, but they kicked their offense in gear, starting with a Hunter Pence single to right field, which sent Scutaro scampering to third.
Scutaro scored on former Red Sox draft pick Brandon Belt’s single to center and two runs came in on Gregor Blanco’s triple to right-center.
Brandon Crawford continued the rally with a double to right to score the fourth Giants run.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.