ST. LOUIS -- What seemed just a week ago to be a fading dream for the Cardinals is suddenly very real. The reigning World Series champions are one win from securing their 19th pennant in franchise history. And if they take care of business on Friday night, they can enjoy a clinching celebration at home for the first time this postseason.
It would be most beneficial if the Cards can do just that, for a variety of reasons. They would have several days for ailing outfielder Carlos Beltran to rest up. They could arrange their starting rotation in any order they wanted, avoiding having to use Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse to close out the National League Championship Series.
And, of course, in simplest terms: you can't lose in seven if you win in five. With all of that in mind, here are three keys for the Cardinals to finish the series off without having to board a westbound plane on Friday night.
Stay in the strike zone: No NL team does this better than the Cards. It's not a matter of looking to take a walk. It's a matter of taking pitches outside the strike zone, and swinging when the pitcher comes over the plate.
The Cardinals did it on Thursday against Tim Lincecum. They need to do it on Friday against Barry Zito. The Giants lefty doesn't have the kind of overwhelming stuff that can make batters miss when he's in the strike zone.
Besides, few teams hit lefties better than the Cards do. Their lineup core of Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and David Freese is a gauntlet of dangerous right-handed hitters, and for a lefty to escape it unscathed is quite an accomplishment. They can, and should, hit Zito. They must avoid letting him get them out with pitchers' pitches. Take the walks if they're there, swing the bat if they're not.
Score early: San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy likely won't exercise a lot of patience with Zito, not with his season on the line. And the Giants' bullpen is a good one. If there are opportunities to convert against Zito in the early innings, the Cardinals need to convert them, or be left wondering what happened.
One subtle factor is the way the St. Louis lineup will be stacked. It's likely that once again Jon Jay and Matt Carpenter will bat in the No. 1-2 spots, unless Beltran recovers quickly. That's two lefties, followed by four straight right-handers. That kind of sequencing makes it much easier for an opposing manager to use his relievers, and Bochy has formidable bullpen arms from both the left and the right side.
It's not that the Cards can't score late. That's been demonstrated again and again, especially in October. But it's likely that the best matchups they'll have on Friday will be against Zito. If they don't exploit that, they may regret it.
Lean on the bullpen: Just as Bochy is likely to do, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny needs to be willing to have a quick hook. Second-year starter Lance Lynn has been very effective at times, but he's never pitched this much in a season.
In Lynn's Game 1 start, he was absolutely breezing, and then the fourth inning completely unraveled for him. In fairness to Lynn, he wasn't pitching on any kind of normal schedule or routine, having been used extensively in relief in the previous round of the playoffs. But it was still evidence of what can happen with a slow hook, and a warning to Matheny about how he ought to work.
Moreover, Matheny now has the arms to be aggressive. Adam Wainwright's seven-inning Game 4 start allowed the Cardinals to avoid using any of their top late-game relievers. So Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Edward Mujica and Trevor Rosenthal are all rested, with none of them having appeared in Game 4 of the NLCS.
Matheny must be decisive and aggressive with his deep and effective bullpen. Lynn has been a key part of the Cards in 2012, but with the rest provided by Wainwright, and an off-day on Saturday if the NLCS does continue, there is no reason not to get every possible out from St. Louis' relief corps.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.