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Bernie: Cards survive obstacle course

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Cardinals v Giants NLCS Game 3

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (left) and closer Jason Motte celebrate after the final out during Game 3 of the National League Championship Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

From late Wednesday afternoon and well into the evening, the Cardinals had to dodge a variety of threats that could have taken them down to a ruinous ending in Game 3 of the NL championship series.

The drawn-out drama began a little after 3 p.m., and over the course of the next six-plus hours, the persistent Cardinals needed a strenuous effort to secure a 3-1 victory over the frustrated San Francisco Giants at Busch Stadium.

In the end, it was worth it. The waiting and the worrying. And all of the time they spent wondering about how they would survive another round of hardball.

By successfully grinding through this marathon day, the Cardinals were rewarded with a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven NLCS. With a win tonight in Game 4 the Cardinals would establish a formidable 3-1 series advantage and back the Giants into a must-win Game 5. Adam Wainwright starts Game 4 for the Cardinals, and Tim Lincecum will try to even the series for the Giants.

But let’s not race ahead. We’ve learned a lot about these teams. The Giants don’t submit; they fight back. Look at what they did in bull-rushing the Cincinnati Reds for three consecutive wins to triumph in a division series after losing the first two games in San Francisco. After coming back and falling short in a 6-4 loss to the Cardinals in NLCS Game 1, the Giants responded with a 7-1 counterpunch in Game 2.

In the other dugout are the Cardinals, who rarely do anything the easy way. They have an aversion to “keep it simple” logic. Never a group that gets comfortable, the Cardinals often must be at their worst before rallying like madmen and playing their best. Game 4 offers another chance to avoid acid reflux.

To prevail in Game 3, the Cardinals had to work around a few obstacles. They had to ride out some storms — and that was before multiple rain cells raged over the ballpark to put the contest in jeopardy. But the Cardinals wouldn’t allow their 3-1 lead to be washed away by the downpour. If it meant getting it done in the mud, the home team would stay all night if necessary.

In other words: ladies and gentlemen, these are your 2012 Cardinals. They might have problems and emergencies. They might hang onto the edge of the cliff. But this band of brothers is a tenacious lot.

In Game 3, the Cardinals had to deal with several hazards. There was a first-inning knee injury to Carlos Beltran, the smooth right fielder who has put up postseason numbers more grandiose than The Babe, Ruth. Beltran apparently strained a knee during his initial at-bat, leaving the Cardinals to deal with another crisis.

Manager Mike Matheny plugged in super-sub Matt Carpenter, who stepped into the box in the third inning. Matt Cain threw him a changeup, then a curve, and Carpenter was down 0-2. On the fifth pitch of the encounter, Cain tried to slither a slider by Carpenter, down and in. But the rookie walloped the pitch over the STL bullpen in right field to give the Cardinals a 2-1 lead.

Cards starter Kyle Lohse ducked danger through 5 2/3 innings filled with Giants and potential treachery. Lohse threw 108 pitches, many under duress. The Giants put 12 runners on base against the righthander, but Lohse helped himself immensely by coaxing the Giants into hitting into two double plays.

Lohse personified the Cardinals in Game 3. He walked that fine line that separates winners and losers in postseason baseball. He could have gone either way. Show weakness and capitulate. Or stand your ground and fend off the Giants on a day when your pitches had more fizzle than sizzle. Lohse dug in. He fought. He won.

“It was ‘grindy,’ and not a work of art,” Lohse said. “I think that’s a new phrase. But my performance fits for this team. Matt Cain’s not that easy to put up runs on, our guy ‘Carp’ comes up with a big hit, and we add a third run right before the rain. It’s tough to come in and sit around for more than three hours, and go back out there and walk it back in with a win. But this team is really good about staying in the moment and doing what we need to do.”

Overall the Giants had 14 runners reach base in the first seven innings but failed to convert their many run-scoring chances. They left 11 runners on over nine innings and went 0 for seven with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals had to lean heavily on their bullpen to get the final 10 outs. Mission accomplished. Trevor Rosenthal got a key out to terminate a threat in the sixth. With two runners on, Mitchell Boggs doused the flames by striking out Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt.

After a 3 hour, 28 minute rain delay, Matheny went with closer Jason Motte for a two-inning save. And it seemed as if Motte needed about 18 seconds to boot the Giants out of Busch. Motte zapped the Giants on 19 pitches to get six quick outs.

The Cardinals bullpen has a 1.93 ERA in 37 1/3 innings this postseason. But in the team’s six postseason victories, the relievers have allowed 22 hits and five earned runs (1.55 ERA) in 29 innings of pure power.

The daring Matheny took a risk in going with Motte for the two-inning save. Earlier, the manager put the game on the line by double-switching first baseman Allen Craig out of the game as he summoned Boggs to relieve Edward Mujica in the seventh. Had the Giants tied it, the Cardinals would have played with a short bench (and no Craig). But Boggs was perfect. So was Motte.

And outfielder Shane Robinson, who entered via the double switch, got the team’s third run home with a ground ball to the right side in the seventh, moments before the rain invaded Busch.

Matheny’s moves could have blown up on him, but they turned out golden. The gambles worked.

“He opens himself up to some second guessing, but he did what he felt like he needed to do,” Lohse said. “I think that speaks a lot for a rookie manager to take that initiative to go out there and go after it. That game was there to be won, and he wasn’t afraid to go get it.”

And now the Cardinals are in position to take command of the series by winning tonight. They probably won’t have Beltran. It won’t be easy. With this team, it never is. These are the 2012 Cardinals, and this is how they do it.

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NLCS stat comparison

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The St. Louis Cardinals overcame a 3 1/2-hour rain delay to defeat the San Francisco Giants in Game 3 of the NLCS, 3-1. The St. Louis Post Dis…

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