Paul White, USA TODAY Sports
The St. Louis Cardinals suddenly find themselves as the hunted.
And so far, they haven't responded well.
Since establishing a 3-1 lead in the National League Championship Series, the Cardinals have been outscored 11-1, including Sunday night's 6-1 thumping by the San Francisco Giants that forced tonight's winner-take-all Game 7.
The Cardinals themselves weren't guilty of making World Series plans after they seized command of the series.
But they also are no longer the lovable underdogs sneaking into the playoffs as wild cards. They found themselves recast as defending champs with a commanding lead and one victory between them and return trip to the Series.
There you are, suddenly expected to win.
And, suddenly, they look different. Now they have one last opportunity to display the resilience that got them all this attention in the first place.
For the potential clincher at home Friday and Sunday's return to the rowdy San Francisco crowd, the Cardinals came out looking like they wanted to make it happen rather than their let-it-happen mantra since they stunned the Texas Rangers and the world last October.
"We have a lot of young guys and veterans that went through it last year," says pitcher Kyle Lohse, who tonight will be charged with reversing the momentum or the trend - or just plain stopping a Giants team that's making every bit as strong a claim on resilience.
"You just learn how to block out all that stuff and concentrate on the moment that you're in right now and we have done a good job of that," Lohse says.
Well, now it's a one-game series - truly the "one game at a time" approach the Cardinals have claimed all along is at the root of their success.
Their approach hasn't been so solid for two games now. At least, not until it was too late.
At bat, the Cardinals were guilty of some early-innings flailing, especially Sunday when they struck out six times during Ryan Vogelsong's first trip through the batting order.
They settled in later for better at-bats, but Vogelsong was rolling by then. This isn't a strikeout guy, but when David Freese whiffed in the fifth, Vogelsong tied his career high for any game - playoff or regular season.
That was the batter before Daniel Descalso finally got St. Louis' first hit of the game.
Early deficits haven't helped St. Louis, though part of the legend they've built this postseason and last has come from grinding out comebacks.
After the Giants scored four runs in the top of the fourth of Game 5, the Cardinals didn't have two runners on base in the same inning until the fifth inning of Game 6, when Pete Kozma followed Descalso's hit with a two-out single. No rallies there.
The four-run second on Sunday included three unearned runs because shortstop Pete Kozma made a crucial error. Wait, he's been one of those unlikely playoff heroes.
Suddenly it isn't about magic. It's about execution.
Chris Carpenter, a vocal leader on the bench and in the clubhouse, hasn't been able to get much beyond the inspirational aspect of coming back ahead of schedule from rib surgery.
Carpenter had two chances, in Game 2 and again in a potential clincher Sunday. But, as much as he would try, he can't will himself and his team to victory.
His teammates knew he was out there with every bit of the heart that makes him a team leader. He knew he was out there with something less on the ball than what he had last October when he put away everybody from Roy Halladay to wrap up the Division Series upset of the Phillies to the Texas Rangers lineup when Game 7 of the World Series was his fourth victory of that postseason.
Sunday, he alternated between mesmerizing hitters more with guile than pure stuff and serving up what the guys in uniform call cookies.
His velocity is down a bit - probably because he's not totally back from a layoff that didn't end until Sept. 21. His line between excellence and disaster is that much finer.
It can be done, as Barry Zito proved emphatically for the Giants in Game 5.
But Pablo Sandoval's scorched double in the first to set up the first run, Brandon Belt's long triple to start the second and Marco Scutaro's two-out, two-run double that made Kozma's error a crusher showed that Carpenter couldn't consistently make the pitches he needed.
Make no mistake: The Cardinals know exactly what's needed in Game 7. But maybe all they needed was for everyone to again think they couldn't possibly pull it off this time.
USA TODAY Sports