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Unlikely hero Carpenter helps Cardinals steal Game 3 from Giants

ST. LOUIS -- They left Texas at around three in the morning. Enough time, they thought, to get there for the first pitch. It's a nine-hour drive from Prosper, Texas, to St. Louis, you see, so Rick and Tammie Carpenter figured they'd cover the 600 miles, no problem, if they drove straight through, and they got to Busch Stadium in time, with a few hours to spare.

A late-inning pinch-hit: that would be nice, probably the most they could hope for. They'd come to Game 3 of the National League Championship Series to see their son Matt --- but Matt was, after all, a 26-year-old rookie utility man, a forgotten player on a championship team loaded with stars, a bench warmer who hadn't started a game the entire postseason and hadn't even had an at-bat in the series. The Carpenters are a baseball family --- Rick was Matt's high school coach; Matt's younger brother, was a former Mets farmhand --- and they know how hard and tough and cruel the game can be.

When they arrived at the stadium early Wednesday afternoon, the Carpenters didn't know, of course, that Carlos Beltran, one of the greatest postseason hitters ever, would leave the game with an knee injury; that Matt would be called upon to replace Beltran in right field and hit second in the lineup; that Matt, a player with six career home runs, would step up to the plate against Giants ace Matt Cain for his first at-bat in the bottom of the third, and that he would launch a 421-foot, two-run home run through the oatmeal-gray sky and into the right-field seats, for the biggest hit in the Cardinals' 3-1 win.

But then again, crazy and wild and unexpected things have happened in October, especially this one, and you never know who the hero will be. So why couldn't it be Matt Carpenter?

* * *

This wasn't a must-win, exactly, but Game 3, Matt Cain vs. Kyle Lohse, was big for San Francisco: the series was tied 1-1, with a big unknown for San Francisco, Tim Lincecum, looming in Game 4, and Barry Zito, who struggled so badly in the NLDS, lined up for Game 5. Here were the Giants with their ace, Cain, facing the 34-year-old Lohse, a game they should win.

It was two days after The Slide, and no, there was no act of retribution: facing Cain in the first inning, Matt Holliday stepped up to the plate, and Cain retired Holliday on a groundout to second baseman Marco Scutaro, the player Holliday barreled into in Game 2 with his slide into second base.

The Giants had their chances early against Lohse. In the third, Angel Pagan scored on a Pablo Sandoval groundout, but with men on first and third and one out, Hunter Pence grounded into a double play. There was another squandered opportunity in the fourth, when Pagan flied out to center with two men on.

At 5:38 Central Time, with two on and two out in the bottom of the seventh, the rains came. The delay would last for 3 hours and 28 minutes. "A lot of sitting," said Buster Posey, when asked what he did during the break. "I walked to the kitchen, I walked to the training room, I walked to the bathroom, and then sat some more." When play resumed, the Cardinals were forced to turn to Jason Motte for the eighth and the ninth, a two-inning outing for their closer, and Motte shut the door, throwing just 19 pitches for six outs.

The only offense the Cardinals needed was the unlikely home run from Carpenter in the third inning. Here was a player who spent the season as a utility man, who went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in the postseason and hadn't appeared in the NLCS. Here he was, on a 2-2- count, ripping an 88 mph slider over the Cardinals bullpen and into the crowd.

Carpenter had been watching from the dugout when Beltran grounded into a double play in the first inning, but he says that when Beltran left the game, "It was definitely a surprise. I didn't even realize Carlos had hurt himself. There was really no thought process. I was in the game before I had time to think about it."

* * *

For the Giants, down 2-1 in the series, here comes their unlikely October weapon, the biggest X-factor in this series... and maybe the entire postseason.

Enter the Freak.

Here's the thing: no one knows for sure which Tim Lincecum will show up when he throws his first pitch in Game 4 --- and that's what makes Thursday night in St. Louis so fascinating.

Lincecum's year did not go so well: he was 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA, the worst among starting pitchers in the NL this year. Bochy called him "the probably the most resilient arm we have on the club, as far as bouncing back." Bochy insists that Lincecum, who has been brilliant out of the bullpen in October (one run, three hits, and nine Ks in 8 1/3 innings), is ready for his first start of this postseason because of his "mechanics, as much as anything." Said Bochy: "He's been in a good rhythm and tempo out there. He's shown a lot of confidence coming out of the bullpen. We asked a lot of him to do what he's done and really has done a tremendous job at giving us multiple innings there. But I would say more than anything he's gone from the stretch and seems more comfortable with his delivery right now, which he was battling most of the year."

Lincecum says he feels better now than he ever did in the regular season. He says he doesn't know why he suddenly has found his mojo in the postseason as a reliever. He says he's solved his problems with his mechanics. His fastball no longer touches the high 90s, or even the mid 90s. He's tossed his unmistakable windup and is pitching exclusively out of the stretch. But he's been as electric as ever. Is it all a mirage? We'll find out in Game 4. "He's pitching with a lot of confidence right now, and that's half the battle," Posey said late on Wednesday. "There's a little bit more life on his pitches. And he's been locating his fastball."

Everything can change Thursday night, in the most intriguing pitching matchup of the series. For the Cardinals, it will be Adam Wainwright, and for the Giants, it's Lincecum, back on the mound as a starter, back where he belongs. In an October of unlikely heroes, the Freak may very well be next to steal the show.

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