ST. LOUIS For the Giants two years ago, it all started and ended with Tim Lincecum. It was Lincecum setting the tone in the first game of the playoffs with his 14-strikeout shutout of the Atlanta Braves. It was Lincecum outdueling Cliff Lee in the clincher of the World Series, the image of the whirlwind right-hander lifted on teammates' shoulders becoming a defining one of that title team.
Thursday night, it was Lincecum whom the Giants turned to try to pull even with the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.
And for the two-time Cy Young Award winner, who began these playoffs shuffled off to the bullpen, it was a chance to distance himself from the most trying season of his career.
Neither happened. And after losing Game 4 in decisive fashion 8-3, the Giants are one loss from being eliminated by the plucky Cardinals, needing a win today at Busch Stadium to send the series back to San Francisco.
It will be left-hander Barry Zito against the Cardinals' 18-game winner, Lance Lynn.
"You've just got to simplify it," said right fielder Hunter Pence. "Our backs are against the wall. There definitely is a different feel whenever you have your back against the wall, but try to let it bring out the best."
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 solace in history, the 1996 Cardinals were one of the teams that blew it.
"We've done it before," manager Bruce Bochy said. "You've got to keep believing and have hope. Without that, you don't have anything.
"We have all the confidence in Barry tomorrow. We do have to get these bats going, though. They're shutting us down."
Bochy shuffled his lineup Thursday after the Giants stranded 11 runners in Game 3. But while Lincecum labored through the shortest playoff start of his career, the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright stymied the Giants for seven innings, allowing only a solo homer to Pence, who snapped his RBI-less postseason with a second-inning laser to left.
The Cardinals led 4-1 in the fifth inning after Yadier Molina's RBI single knocked Lincecum out of the game, and tacked on four against a parade of Giants relievers.
Pablo Sandoval's two-run homer in the ninth off Fernando Salas matched the number of runs the Giants scored over their first 17 innings in St. Louis.
"I actually think Wainwright today was as good as you're going to see," Pence said. "He was spot-on with his location."
In his relief outings, Lincecum had regained some life on his pitches and found a rhythm throwing exclusively out of the stretch. He scrapped his signature windup again for Game 4 but struggled early.
Jon Jay lined Lincecum's third pitch for a single, Matt Carpenter walked on four pitches and Matt Holliday singled up the middle to score Jay and send Carpenter to third. Three batters in, pitching coach Dave Righetti came out to talk. Allen Craig then made it 2-0 with a sacrifice fly.
During the season, Lincecum allowed 28 first-inning runs in 33 starts, more than in any other inning. He took time Thursday finding his command, walking Carpenter twice in the first two innings and Wainwright in the second on five pitches.
"That's the frustrating part," Lincecum said. "Starting off 2-0 in that first inning definitely puts your team in a hole, and so you're just pretty much scratching back to then hoping that things turn around."
Beginning with Holliday's flyout to end the second inning, Lincecum retired eight in a row with an assist from Angel Pagan, whose leaping catch at the wall in center in the third robbed Molina of extra bases.
The streak ended in the fifth. Carpenter doubled with one out, and Holliday hit a sinking liner that Pagan snagged on a bounce and shot back to the infield.
The relay home beat Carpenter but skipped off the glove of catcher Hector Sanchez, and Carpenter slid across to give St. Louis a 3-1 lead. Molina singled up the middle to score Holliday and bring Bochy to the mound to pull Lincecum.
"It's extremely disappointing, because you feel like you can pick your team up in a situation like this," Lincecum said. "But when you don't go and do it, it's just that much farther of a fall, I guess."