SAN FRANCISCO -- The merry-go-round, as Mark McGwire likes to call it, was spinning in the fourth inning Sunday night. It made Madison Bumgarner dizzy.
This is what the Cardinals do to opposing clubs. This is why you ought not be fooled by their somewhat pedestrian regular-season record or their second Wild Card status.
What the Cards do, when they are at their best, is squeeze opposing pitchers into submission. They patiently wait for their pitch, they smack the ball the other way, they mash mistakes, they watch that pitch count tally rise until the bullpen phone rings.
"If you don't take selfish at-bats," said center fielder Jon Jay, "if you don't try to chase and just pass the torch, you'll see good things happen."
Good things are happening to the Cardinals once again this October, and it is not accidental. The crazy comeback in the capital and the 6-4 win here at AT&T Park, in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Giants, were both built on the same principle.
"We don't have a lot of free-swinging strikeout guys," Lance Berkman said. "We have guys who know the strike zone and have good reputations. And when you stack that many good hitters back to back to back to back in the lineup and the pitcher has to work for every [out] and make quality pitches, that makes it tough."
It is obvious that the Cards have two particularly tough weapons at their disposal.
Carlos Beltran has been a beast this postseason, and that ought to be unsurprising. His two-run homer off Bumgarner in the fourth was the 14th of his postseason career, and his postseason at-bat-per-homer ratio of 7.71 is the best all time, nearly a full at-bat ahead of some guy named Babe Ruth.
Carlos Beltran and David Freese rank first and sixth in slugging percentage in postseason history
You get that kind of October impact in your lineup, and you're a dangerous draw. But the Cardinals parlay Beltran's October accolades in the No. 2 spot of the lineup with those of 2011 World Series savior David Freese in the No. 6 hole to make an abnormally abusive alignment.
Freese's efforts have come in a smaller postseason sample, sure. But what a sample. He smacked a two-run homer off Bumgarner in the second inning Sunday to help bring his career postseason slugging percentage to .739. Among those with at least 100 postseason plate appearances, that's the third-highest mark in history, trailing only Beltran (.824) and that Ruth guy (.744) again.
So now you're talking about not one but two of the greatest October bats in history lending the Cards a helping hand. And that's still not the ultimate strength of this order.
Allow Berkman (whose role, because of knee issues, has been reduced to that of interested, intelligent observer) to explain.
"We went 1-2-3 in the first inning [in Game 1]," Berkman said. "I was thinking about it, and the last guys in the next inning would be [Yadier] Molina and Freese. You're talking about two unbelievable hitters. So to have two innings where a guy has to deal with that kind of lineup, it's just a strong, deep lineup."
It's a lineup that saw, on average, 4.06 pitches per plate appearance in the Wild Card and Division Series rounds. And that, ultimately, is how the Cardinals, who scored the second-most runs in the NL this season, have managed to average 6.3 runs thus far this postseason. From Jay in the leadoff spot to Matt Holliday and Allen Craig in the Nos. 3 and 4 holes and down through Daniel Descalso and the emerging Pete Kozma in the lower-third, it's a group that buys into McGwire's theory about staying selective and forcing early exits from opposing pitchers.
"That starts with Big Mac and what he preaches," Freese said. "We go over what type of guys we're facing. This time of year, you're facing the best, the hottest, the guys who can execute pitches and stay out of the middle of the plate. When guys miss in the postseason, you have to make them pay, because there aren't going to be many opportunities where you can drive a baseball."
Freese drove the baseball a long way in the second inning, hitting his first homer of this postseason to give the Cards a 2-0 lead.
But it was the fourth inning where St. Louis broke the game open. Freese flew out to end a six-pitch at-bat, but Descalso and Kozma pulled consecutive ground-ball doubles to construct one run. After Lynn struck out, Jay quickly found himself in an 0-2 hole with two out, but he singled to center on a sinker, scoring another. And then Beltran did what Beltran does: Working the count 2-0 and waiting for his pitch to hit -- in this case an 87-mph slider that cleared the wall and forced Bumgarner from the game.
"Our philosophy, basically, is you've got to get good pitches to hit in order to hit 'em," Descalso said. "If we're chasing pitches out of the zone, that's not going to be a successful approach. We were able to make Bumgarner make some mistakes, and guys put good swings on the ball."
McGwire tells his guys, "The merry-go-round stops once you strike out. Put the ball in play, and a lot of great things are going to happen."
They've been happening for the Cardinals this October, never more prominently than in that magic act against the Nats. The night before, McGwire had noted that Storen had been getting the Cards to swing at his slider outside of the zone. The matter was discussed, the adjustment was made, and the comeback was built on the ability to stay out over the plate to do damage on fastballs on the outside edge.
No such adjustment was necessary against Bumgarner, because the Redbirds didn't take long to find their comfort zone against him Sunday night.
As a result, they enter Monday in a good position, particularly with Chris Carpenter on the mound in Game 2. They say October success is built on the kind of stellar starts Carpenter routinely turns in.
Then again, six runs a game will take you pretty far, too.