The Cardinals already hold the dubious distinction of being the only Major League team to twice blow a 3-1 lead in the National League Championship Series. It happened in 1996, when St. Louis was walloped by the Braves after taking three of the first four games. Seventeen of the players on the Cardinals' current 25-man roster experienced the same sting last October, when the Giants stormed back to block the Cardinals from a second straight World Series berth.
In order to prevent a third such NLCS crumble, the Cardinals will need to win behind Michael Wacha on Friday or their ace, Adam Wainwright, on Saturday.
"We've been very clear about the urgency," manager Mike Matheny said. "Not that we had a lack of it last year, as much as, 'Just let's remember,' and a realization of how quickly that can change, not to take anything for granted. Right now, just keep playing the game. Don't get too far ahead, but also don't live in the past. But remember what happened, learn from it and let's see if we can change the course."
Perhaps the most crucial distinction between those two lost series and the one the Cardinals lead, 3-2, right now, is the ending point. In '96, the Cardinals had to head to Atlanta, where starters Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine awaited after the Braves' Game 5 win. Similarly, the Giants had home-field advantage -- and their best pitchers, Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong, ready -- after stealing a Game 5 win behind Barry Zito.
This year, the Cardinals' consolation after losing on Wednesday was that they boarded a flight to St. Louis. Since going 54-27 at Busch Stadium during the regular season, the Cardinals have won four of their five home postseason games.
"We're not going to San Francisco, we're going home, so I think that's a big plus," David Freese said. "But regardless, the Dodgers think they can win at our place, and they're going to come out ready to go in Game 6. We've got to come in there, because I think both teams are going to want to jump ahead early."
In both the '96 and '12 NLCS losses, the Cardinals' downfall was exacerbated by poor starting pitching. The Braves outscored the Cardinals, 32-1, while rolling off three straight wins. In two of those games, St. Louis had its starter knocked out before the second inning.
The Giants had similar success, scoring 20 runs and allowing just one to book their trip to the World Series. The Cardinals' starters fared only slightly better than they had in '96, as they logged a total of 9 2/3 innings. St. Louis went with a pitcher in Game 6 (Chris Carpenter ) who never was entirely healthy. Their Game 7 starter (Kyle Lohse ) had hit a wall after carrying a heavy regular-season and postseason load.
The club believes its rotation is lined up much more advantageously this time around. Wacha, who has allowed one run on seven hits in his last three starts (22 2/3 innings), gets the Game 6 assignment. If the Dodgers force a winner-take-all Game 7, the Cardinals will have ace Wainwright ready to go on regular rest.
"I feel like we're in a really good position," said losing Game 5 starter Joe Kelly. "Those are two really good pitchers that we have. They, obviously, have two really good pitchers, too. It'll just come down to who plays a better baseball game."
Of course, the Dodgers like their chances behind starters Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu, too. Though the Cardinals beat Kershaw (for the third time this season,) in Game 2 of the NLCS, he hardly deserved the fault. The game's only run was set up by a passed ball.
Two days later, a second lefty, Ryu, shut the Cardinals out for seven innings to help lift the Dodgers to their first win of the series.
It shouldn't be ignored, either, that the Cardinals had their share of troubles against left-handed pitching all season. The club went 19-23 against southpaws during the regular season and was shut down by Pittsburgh's Francisco Liriano in the NL Division Series. These are the sort of matchups, too, where the absence of right-handed hitting Allen Craig looks especially troublesome.
"If St. Louis does beat us, they beat us against our best guys going," said Dodgers utility man Skip Schumaker, who was with the Cardinals last year. "I've seen it happen, so I know it can be done. There is a reason why it's a seven-game series, and I thought it was going to be seven games in the beginning because it was so evenly matched, these teams. I'm hoping I'm right."
As much as anything, the Cardinals -- 14-9 since 2000 in potential clinchers -- have to fight the flashbacks. Players have already been asked for two days about the lessons learned from last year. They have said all the right things -- how they're facing a different team under changed circumstances -- but be certain: That the sting of 2012 is not gone. Some spoke of it as a motivating factor back in Spring Training.
The Dodgers play under the pressure of payroll. St. Louis, the NL's winningest team during the regular season, shoulders the pressure of not repeating last year's ending.
"We know it's going to be a battle," catcher A.J. Ellis said after the Dodgers' Game 5 win. "We don't feel like we opened the floodgates or anything like that. They've still got some great pitchers coming against us. These games are going to be tight and hard-fought the entire way. You got a glimpse in the ninth inning, they're not going to give anything away for free, either. It's a great team over there who is battle-tested and has been through this before. I'm sure they would have loved to have closed it out [in Game 5], but I'm also sure that they know they're still in a good spot."