SAN FRANCISCO -- A Game 7 had to happen between these two teams. When St. Louis took a 3-1 lead in the NLCS on Thursday night, rolling past the Giants as if they didn't deserve to share the field with the defending world champions, the Cardinals' attempts to savor the dominance kept hitting a wall. The St. Louis clubhouse was filled with the cautionary, respectful sound of “Those guys aren't done yet.”
That caveat is pretty standard fare in professional sports, but the Cardinals didn't express the thought in words alone. Eyes widened. Brows came together. Voices turned apprehensive. They knew how the Giants had undone the Reds, and they knew themselves.
“Unfortunately, we don't win until we absolutely need to,” said Kyle Lohse, who will start in Monday night's survival game instead of prepping to face the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
Both teams love cheating death. The Cardinals have done it in six straight elimination games going back to last season. The Giants are 5-0 in the same situation this year.
“They have the guys who have done it, too,” the Cardinals' Lance Berkman said, “which is one of the things that makes tomorrow night so intriguing, because I don't think you're going to see a choke factor.”
Berkman, recovering from an injury and inactive in this series, gave an eloquent tutorial on one of the most controversial concepts in sports. He does not acknowledge “clutch,” a mystical element that marks players and teams that succeed under the ultimate pressure. For true believers, a Game 7 would be the ultimate test of an athlete's ability to elevate in big games. Berkman is not a true believer.
“Instead of clutch, there are guys I would call gamers,” he said, “guys that are just the same on Tuesday nights in the middle of June as under the brightest lights.”
On a Wednesday night in mid-June, the Giants' Matt Cain threw a perfect game against the Houston Astros. Game 7 belongs to him, opposite Lohse. He has been the Giants' best pitcher this year, and he had a phenomenal postseason on the way to a World Series in 2010. But he was Tim Lincecum's wingman in 2010, and he has not been extraordinary of late. He started Game 5, clinching the division series against the Reds, but he didn't make it to the sixth inning.
So when asked to describe the last time he had pitched in a game that sent the loser home and the winner onto something grander, Cain's mind reached back to his teens.
“We had a game my senior year of high school that was to go to state against our rival school. But that didn't work out so well for me,” the Giants' right-hander said.
He said he'd consider going even further back mentally to prepare for Game 7.
“You almost have to revert back when you were in Little League, because the game is about having fun,” he said. “And sometimes when you put too much onto it, it kind of ruins the moment for you.”
Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong certainly seemed to elevate their performances.
They faced a St. Louis team that had averaged 5.7 runs in 10 previous playoff games, and held it to just one run over two potentially lethal nights for the Giants.
No, Berkman said, they called on talent they've always had. So-called clutch players don't get better than they've ever been. “They just don't get any worse. And some guys get worse with that external pressure,” he said.
Just like hitters who have taken thousands of swings in a season, he said, the 2012 Giants and Cardinals have practiced performing normally while inches from extinction.
“Until you do it, there's always that question in the back of your minds,” the obliging Professor Berkman said, calling on his days as an Astro for support. “In those situations, you can let [the doubt] get the best of you.”
Lohse said he wouldn't be able to sleep Sunday night, in advance of his start. For him, that's normal.
“I'm not going to lose any sleep because I don't get any,” he said. “So it won't matter.”
Vogelsong is famously intense, off in his own world, before any game. He has been the anchor of the Giants' rotation, if not the entire team, in the playoffs. Both Buster Posey and Lincecum said he looked exactly the same as he did in June. They would have gotten A's in the Berkman tutorial. Vogelsong could teach it next semester.
“He's not suddenly going to start throwing 100 mph,” Berman said. “What you can do in the playoffs is increase your concentration. Your focus can be so fine on every hitter, every pitch, and I think that's what he's been doing.”
Berkman validated his credentials by telling a rare truth among athletes: revealing vulnerability.
“I know for me, I don't like hitting in the playoffs because it's scary,” he said. “I mean, there's a lot of things you want to do well. There's a microscope on you. But I feel like some of the best at-bats I've ever taken have come because of that, because you're really focusing on every pitch. Your mind's not wandering and you're laser-focused on what you're doing. That doesn't happen every time in the regular season.”
At least one Giant seems to believe in the mystical quality.
“You get those tingly feelings before the game,” Hunter Pence said, before reflecting on a great sliding catch he made in Game 5. “When you're in the outfield, and there's a fly ball hit it's like you draw something different because your back is against the wall. … In the Zito game, I don't know if I ever would have gotten as close to the ball. I probably could have caught it, but it's a different animal.”
But pitching coach Dave Righetti said that Zito's calmness, as opposed to his quick, antsy pace in a bad start against the Reds, explained the best outing of his Giants career. He'd probably agree with Berkman's advice for emotion management:
“You don't want the aura of a Game 7.”