ST. LOUIS -- For the Giants two years ago, it all started and ended with Tim Lincecum. It was Lincecum setting the tone in game one of the playoffs with his 14-strikeout manhandling of the Atlanta Braves. It was Lincecum out-dueling the Rangers' Cliff Lee in the clincher of the World Series, the image of the whirlwind right-hander riding on teammates' shoulders becoming a defining one of that title team.
Thursday night, it was Lincecum the Giants turned to trying to pull even with the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series. And for the two-time Cy Young winner, who began these playoffs by being shuffled off to the bullpen, it was a chance to distance himself a bit from the most trying season of his career.
Neither happened. And after losing Game 4 in decisive fashion, 8-3, the Giants are now one loss away from being eliminated from the playoffs by the plucky Cardinals, needing a win Friday at Busch Stadium just to send the series back to San Francisco. It will be Barry Zito against Lance Lynn, who won 18 games for the Cardinals this year.
After sweeping the Cincinnati Reds on the road to win the division series, the Giants have come to St. Louis and lost twice to fall behind 3-1 in the NLCS. Only two teams since 1985 have rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS, though if the Giants are looking for some solace in history, the 1996 Cardinals were one of the teams that lost.
Unlike Game 3, the Giants couldn't point Thursday to missed opportunities. While Lincecum was laboring through the shortest postseason start of his career, the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright stymied the Giants for seven innings, allowed only a solo home run to Hunter Pence, who snapped his RBI-less postseason with his 458-foot laser into the left-field seats.
The Cardinals led 4-1 in the fifth after Yadier Molina singled in a run to knock Lincecum out of the game, and they tacked on two more in the sixth and seventh innings against a succession of Giants relievers. Pablo Sandoval's two-run shot in the ninth off Fernando Salas matched the number of runs the Giants had scored over the previous 17 innings in St. Louis.
Until Thursday, the Giants' most effective reliever in this postseason had been Lincecum himself. Over three outings, Lincecum had seemed to regain some life on his pitches and find a rhythm throwing exclusively out of the stretch. He scrapped his signature windup again for Game 4, a move that only underscored how much has changed since 2010.
Jon Jay lined Lincecum's third pitch for a single, Matt Carpenter walked on four pitches and Matt Holliday chopped a single up the middle to score Jay and send Carpenter to third. Three batters in, pitching coach Dave Righetti was coming out to talk, and after Righetti returned to the dugout, Allen Craig made the score 2-0 with a sacrifice fly.
The first inning plagued Lincecum all season, as he allowed 28 first-inning runs in 33 starts, more than in any other inning. On this night, he struggled early with his command, walking Carpenter twice in the first two innings and the pitcher Wainwright in the second on five pitches.
Beginning with Holliday's flyout to end the second, though, Lincecum retired eight hitters in a row. That came with an assist from Angel Pagan, whose leaping catch at the center-field wall in the third inning robbed Molina of extra bases.
But the streak, and Lincecum's night, ended in the fifth. Carpenter, filling in admirably for the injured Carlos Beltran, doubled over Pagan's head with one out. Holliday followed with a sinking liner that Pagan snagged on a bounce and shot back to the infield.
The relay home beat Carpenter, but it skipped off the glove of catcher Hector Sanchez, and Carpenter slid across to give St. Louis a 3-1 lead. After Craig struck out, Molina singled up the middle to score Holliday and bring manager Bruce Bochy out of the dugout to get Lincecum.
Bochy shuffled his lineup before the game, flipping Buster Posey and Sandoval in the order and bumping the struggling Pence down to sixth. The Giants' 3-4-5-6 hitters drove in all three of their runs but went 3-for-16. Hector Sanchez, inserted to catch Lincecum and bat fifth, struck out three times.
The Giants still trailed by three in the sixth when Pagan and Marco Scutaro hit back-to-back one-out singles, bringing Posey to the plate as the potential tying run. But Posey flew out to right field, Sandoval grounded out to third, and the Giants suddenly find themselves in a familiar situation -- win three in a row, or see their season come to an end.