Cardinals-Giants NLCS gives one of greatest treats in sports: a Game 7

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

SAN FRANCISCO – They're playing a Game 7 here, a gift to anybody who cares about this sport. Baseball has gotten more parochial over time, its interests narrowing by city, its national pastime moniker evolving into regional obsession. Game 7 does away with that. It is the great unifier. You needn't be from San Francisco or St. Louis to relish it. Baseball devotees, one and all: Bear witness, for it gets no better than this.

It is impossible to know what this Game 7 will hold because it is still a game, prone to oddities, ripe for chance, teeming with possibility. And yet damn if this one doesn't have all the makings of a classic, a fitting end to a series that pits a pair of teams with Darwinian survival instinct in a game that ensures one will not, in fact, survive another day.

The Giants and Cardinals will tussle Monday night at 8:07 ET to determine who represents the National League in the World Series. Matt Cain will face Kyle Lohse. AT&T Park will turn seismic. And finally, one of these teams will lose an elimination game, the Cardinals' streak of six straight victories in win-or-go-home bouts dating back to their championship last season, the Giants' running off five consecutive fresh ones, including a pair in this NLCS.

The latest was another beatdown, the Giants pummeling the Cardinals 6-1 in Game 6 after a 5-0 win in Game 5. Ryan Vogelsong, a baseball vagabond who returned from exile in Japan to find himself back in the major leagues in his mid-30s, broke nearly as many Cardinals bats as he allowed hits and struck out a career-high nine. San Francisco vexed St. Louis starter Chris Carpenter with a four-run barrage in the second inning.

It would take a monumental gag by the Cardinals to lose this series. After Game 6, the soundtrack emanating from their clubhouse was of mild retching.

"The last thing they are is nervous," Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. "Same with us."

There is something to that, this intersection of two teams that consider themselves impervious to pressure, kissed by destiny, dusted by the mysticism that, in reality, doesn't exist but, in the baseball bubble, has kept them alive. The Cardinals were one pitch away from elimination last season and won the World Series. This season they triumphed in the first-ever wild-card play-in game, which could have sent them home weeks ago. The Giants survived a 2-0 deficit to Cincinnati in the best-of-five division series, and now they've beaten St. Louis twice when facing season's end.

[Related: Marco Scutaro stays hot after run-in with Matt Holliday]

"You get those tingly feelings before the game," Giants outfielder Hunter Pence said. "When you're out in the outfield and there's a fly ball it's like you draw on something different."

That something vacillates between tangible and intangible, between a feeling of urgency and the knowledge that a season's end can be one misplay away.

"I understand the seriousness and implication that each game has, each play, each pitch that I make. Yeah. You've got to respect it. You've got to go with it," Giants reliever Sergio Romo said. "Baseball is an unbelievable sport where you never know what's gonna happen next. And the playoffs is a great place to find that."

This postseason has been a horn of plenty not just for the unexpected but the meaningful game. Both play-ins sent a team home. All four division series went to a deciding fifth game. While the ALCS was a dud – an entertaining one, sure, to be remembered for Alex Rodriguez trying to pick up a woman mid-game – this NLCS has gone a long way to redeeming the middle third of the postseason and sending to the World Series a rightful opponent for the Detroit Tigers.

[Related: Ex-Cardinal Nick Punto and his wife cheer on his former team in S.F.]

Over the last week, they've traded blows to prove themselves worthy. The Cardinals are here despite a .219/.267/.327 line over the series, a gimpy Carlos Beltran not at his best and No. 3 hitter Matt Holliday out for Game 6 and perhaps Game 7 with a bad back. The Giants have relied on Marco Scutaro, all 5-foot-9 of him, for nearly a quarter of their hits.

All of which is to say Monday is, more than anything, a test to see whether Cain or Lohse will crack first. Cain said he pitched an elimination game in high school. Lohse started the play-in game for the Cardinals, who survived the fans at Turner Field turning the field into a public garbage receptacle.

He figures Game 7 here will be even better – or worse – AT&T Park unmatched in its ability to turn into a thunderdome.

"It's going to be fun to go out there and feel it," Lohse said, "and it's also going to be fun to block it out."

Good luck. Game 7s are unrelenting in their ability to infiltrate the minds of even the most steeled to big October baseball. The last Game 7 in the NLCS came in 2006, and the game's final moment remains frozen in the minds of everyone who saw it then and since: Beltran a statue, Adam Wainwright jubilant, the Mets losers, the Cardinals victorious, a called third strike on a curveball part of both teams' lore with far different interpretations and implications.

Beltran and Wainwright are teammates now, and that game has nothing to do with this one, just like the Cardinals' record in NLCS Game 7s (3-1) has nothing to do with it, just like their 6-0 win over the Giants in Game 7 of the 1987 NLCS has nothing to do with it.

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This Game 7 stands alone because of recent history, of these teams alternately playing zombie. The Cardinals last year wouldn't die. The Giants this year won't. The Cardinals pulled off an all-time comeback in Game 5 of the division series earlier this month against Washington. The Giants did the same over the final three games of the series against Cincinnati and want to do the same thing Monday to the Cardinals.

"Game 7 is Game 7," Freese said. "I think it's self-explanatory. It's unreal. The last possible game of a series. Winner keeps going. Loser goes home. There's nothing better. Especially when you're a part of it."

It's pretty spectacular as a spectator, too, the sort of treat that should prompt anyone to put aside provincial snobbery and just watch a slobberknocker. No need to have a rooting interest. No need to get caught up if you've missed the first six. No need for anything but a TV, a pair of eyes and a thirst for excitement.

This is Game 7. And it gets no better.

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