Sunday October 12th, 2014

ST. LOUIS -- This is a moment of suspended belief.

Bat cracks ball, ball sails high. Fair or foul? Caught or dropped? In or out? By its nature, baseball creates these strung-together seconds when depth perception and bated breath and delusion can make you think, for a good five seconds that seem like five minutes, that your team has a chance.

There are moments of fact, too, but they’re rare. The ball that’s just crushed. The ground ball against the shift, that’s going through that hole no matter what. On Saturday, there was the crack of Matt Carpenter’s bat as he led off the game for the Cardinals. It was a hit — a single, no question. The sold-out crowd at Busch Stadium knew that thing was going to plop into the outfield untouched, because of the angle, because of the man at the plate, because of trust.

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That moment, 61 batters ago, was the last time the Cardinals knew anything at all. After getting shut out by Madison Bumgarner, St. Louis will have 20 hours and change to suspend reality before Game 2. If the Cardinals are lucky, they’ll have five days before they must truly contend with it, with fair or foul, in or out, alive or dead.

Five days from Saturday will be Game 5, if the series makes it that long. Game 5, which means staff aces on the mound, which means Bumgarner, which means Adam Wainwright. Unless, of course, it doesn’t.

On Saturday, Wainwright looked downright pedestrian. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny yanked him in the fifth inning after he’d allowed three runs (two earned) and six hits, and though that might appear to be merely a hiccup, to St. Louis, it should look far more menacing. You see, it’s been just more than a week since Wainwright, who finished the regular season with a 2.38 ERA, allowed six Dodgers runs on 11 hits in Game 1 of the NLDS. It’s been only four days since Matheny questioned whether his ace would be prepared for his next start due to lingering soreness on the back of his right elbow.

And now this. Sure, Wainwright’s team couldn’t offer him even an iota of run support, and three tallies on the scorecard by the Giants aren’t that many, but the starter’s tosses did not pass the eye test. San Francisco’s hitters will say otherwise. Of course they will, because why wouldn’t they relish getting to one of the game’s best arms? But on Saturday, Wainwright wasn’t himself.

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“I thought he did a nice job of fighting without his best stuff again, and that’s very consistent with what we’ve seen of him for many years now,” Matheny said of Wainwright. “He goes out there and finds a way to get it done.”

But it’s October, and in October, sometimes even the best stuff doesn’t cut it. Meanwhile, as Wainwright labored, Bumgarner set a record for the longest scoreless streak on the road in playoff history. Over his past 26 2/3 October innings dating back to the 2012 playoffs, the 25-year-old has 25 strikeouts to go with his perfect 0.00 ERA. He went 7 2/3 innings Saturday, and there was never a doubt of his dominance, save a two-hit seventh inning that could have been much worse had a controversial no-call on a balk gone the Cardinals' way. By the end of that inning, Busch Stadium was so lifeless, so flat, that it seemed the masses had already conceded a Giants win. A performance like Bumgarner’s will do that to even the most rabid fan base.

“You know, [I was] just making pitches,” Bumgarner said. “Especially this time of year, you’re going to have to make pitches against anybody, especially a team like the Cardinals. You can’t make mistakes against them. They will show you time and time again what happens if you do.”

The Cardinals made mistakes on Saturday in bunches. A ball that bounced out of right fielder Randal Grichuk’s glove in the second inning became a double for Pablo Sandoval, and that, along with an error on Carpenter, was largely responsible for the Giants’ first two runs. Slow fielding throughout left the Cardinals a step behind on several double-play opportunities, too. But even so, even with all the mistakes that had absolutely nothing to do with St. Louis’ starting pitcher, Wainwright is still the biggest question mark in the ballpark, the murky future that might decide the series.

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With two teams as evenly matched as the Giants and the Cardinals, any slight advantage or departure from the norm means something. The two teams might be able to go tit for tat right through the rest of their rotations, but eventually, it’ll be Wainwright vs. Bumgarner again, or even Wainwright vs. Royals' ace James Shields or the Orioles' No. 1 Chris Tillman in the World Series. And, if this shaky October continues, it might not be pretty. An ace is supposed to give a team its best chance at winning. An ace of Wainwright and Bumgarner’s caliber is supposed to be something approaching an automatic W.

There are too many questions about the Cardinals’ pitchers right now. What’s wrong with Wainwright is chief among them, and it spawns a dozen other queries. Do Matheny and company keep the faith and ride it out, because the guy has been so good for so long? Do they promote Lance Lynn to the No. 1 starter? And what about Michael Wacha? Is he available?

The Giants, meanwhile, churn on. Jake Peavy on Sunday, then most likely Tim Hudson on Tuesday, Ryan Vogelsong on Wednesday. The distractions are nil, and the series will unfold as planned, which is exactly what every team wants come playoffs.

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The Cardinals will worry. Should worry. They’ll hit again, most likely, and there’s no reason to think they couldn’t win the next three games on strong performances by Lynn, John Lackey and Shelby Miller. But Bumgarner and his scoreless streak lurk, and the Giants have the same perfect mix of October luck and pragmatism that seems to fuel the Cardinals every fall. These teams have been here before. They know the drill, which at this point is to hope for some luck and exploit every weakness they can find.

These next few days will be like the highest pop-up. Eventually, that ball’s going to plummet back to earth, and reality will set in. Will reality be Wainwright, or will it be Saturday’s approximation of Wainwright? Both teams have plenty of time to wish, to hope, to tilt their heads sideways and see what they want to see.

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