St. Louis hitters were stymied by Washington's excellent pitching staff in the Nationals' 2-1 walk-off win on Thursday, a night after the Cards' 8-0 rout put a damper on playoff baseball's return to Washington.
The defending World Series champions had controlled most of the series -- though they split the first two games in St. Louis -- but it all goes out the window when the teams take the field at Nationals Park on Friday night at 8:30 ET on TBS for the deciding Game 5.
Here are the five keys that could let the Cardinals advance to the National League Championship Series and face the Giants.
1. A repeat performance from Adam Wainwright
The right-hander was in line for the Game 1 victory until Nats rookie Tyler Moore dropped a two-run bloop single into right field in the eighth inning. Wainwright threw 5 2/3 innings of one-run, six-hit ball while striking out 10 and walking just three.
|10/5/2012||NLWC 1||Atl.||6-3 W|
|10/28/2011||WS 7||Tex||6-2 W|
|10/7/2011||NLDS 5||Phi.||1-0 W|
|10/19/2006||NLCS 7||NYM||3-1 W|
|10/21/2004||NLCS 7||Hou.||5-2 W|
|10/14/2001||NLDS 5||Ari.||2-1 L|
|10/17/1996||NLCS 7||Atl.||15-0 L|
|10/25/1987||WS 7||Min.||4-2 L|
|10/14/1987||NLCS 7||S.F.||6-0 W|
|10/27/1985||WS 7||K.C.||11-0 L|
|10/20/1982||WS 7||Mil.||6-3 W|
|10/10/1968||WS 7||Det.||4-1 L|
|10/12/1967||WS 7||Bos.||7-2 W|
|10/15/1964||WS 7||NYY||7-5 W|
|10/15/1946||WS 7||Bos.||4-3 W|
|10/10/1931||WS 7||Phi.||4-2 W|
|10/10/1926||WS 7||NYY||3-2 W|
Wainwright did not pitch in the Cards' World Series run last year, as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he showed in Game 1 what made him so tough in 2009 and '10, when he won 19 and 20 games, respectively. Those 10 strikeouts were the most by a St. Louis pitcher in the postseason since Bob Gibson struck out 10 in Game 4 of the 1968 World Series.
"That's the best I've seen Adam since before his [surgery]," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Not that he wasn't good the last couple of times. We faced him two times late in the year, so a lot of people were kind of saying he was getting tired. But that right there, that was the curveball he had before."
2. Quiet the Nationals Park crowd
It's been a long time since there was meaningful baseball in the District, and these fans have been hungry for it. There have been great crowds at Nationals Park -- the 45,017 on Wednesday was a ballpark record -- and fans have been bursting at the seams every chance they get.
The Cardinals did a masterful job of silencing those fans on Wednesday, leaving them with little to cheer in the 8-0 blowout. But the crowd was back in it during Thursday's tense game, and went wild when Jayson Werth won it with a solo homer in the ninth.
"It seems like the last two months, our crowd here has been electric," manager Davey Johnson said, "and it translates to the players. We feed off it."
With their team holding the chance of moving on to the NLCS in front of a prime-time crowd on Friday, fans will be amped. If Wainwright and the Redbirds can keep them from getting into it the way they did on Wednesday, it could make a big difference.
3. Be patient against Gio Gonzalez
The Nats' ace was as wild as he's been all season in his Game 1 start, walking five of the first nine batters he faced, but the Cardinals did not take advantage and wound up with the loss.
If Gonzalez is at all as shaky as he was then, the Cards will have to exhibit some patience at the plate and take advantage of that wildness. If so, they can work a high pitch count and get to Washington's bullpen. Which leads us to ...
4. Get to Washington's bullpen
The relief corps has been formidable all season, but it hasn't been particularly sharp in this series. In Game 3, Craig Stammen, Christian Garcia and Ryan Mattheus each gave up at least one run. The 'pen was fantastic on Thursday -- eight of the nine outs recorded by relievers were strikeouts -- but Johnson used setup man Tyler Clippard and closer Drew Storen for the second straight night.
Johnson admitted on Thursday that he only wanted to use Clippard, Storen and Jordan Zimmermann because they were the freshest arms he had in his bullpen. With Stammen and Mattheus struggling -- Sean Burnett also had a terrible outing earlier in the series -- and Clippard and Storen coming off an outing on Thursday, St. Louis could have a few good chances if it can knock Gonzalez out of the game early.
5. Rely on experience
Everyone knows the tale of the tape for the Cardinals when it comes to elimination games. They were victorious in four such games in their trek to the World Series title last year, and they pulled out a victory in the one-game Wild Card playoff against the Braves last Friday.
Many of the players from last year's club are back, and the Cards can lean on that experience in Friday's elimination game.
"I think last year's experience in the playoffs, we got a lot of experience, a lot of confidence built," first baseman Allen Craig said. "Just going to the World Series and winning the World Series, having to play a Game 7 and come out on top; I think that you're seeing a lot of us use that experience so far in this postseason. We had a tough do-or-die game in Atlanta and came out on top, and after we won that game, I think we started to feel really good about ourselves and get that feeling like we had last year."