ST. LOUIS — Two years later, the sting is still fresh for Mike Matheny.
His St. Louis Cardinals were seemingly on the verge of a second straight trip to the World Series under manager Tony La Russa’s first-year successor, and instead the San Francisco Giants ended up using them as a springboard to the championship.
Barry Zito got it started, defying his recent track record, and Marco Scutaro batted .500 and became MVP of the NL Championship Series. Next thing the Cardinals knew, they were back home cleaning out lockers while the Giants finished the postseason on a seven-game winning streak, sweeping the Tigers in the World Series.
“Obviously, the Zito game sticks out in everybody’s mind,” Matheny said. “He threw an exceptional game and it seemed like things turned around at that point.”
The Giants outscored the Cardinals 20-1 the last three games, and carried that momentum into a championship. Minus those two surprise stars, they’re back for more: Giants-Cards once again in the NLCS.
“There are a lot of players from 2012 on both sides, and I think you learn from that,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “It’s a different year, though.”
The Cardinals have the home-field advantage again in the best-of-seven matchup that begins Saturday night with aces Adam Wainwright and Madison Bumgarner squaring off in a series matching teams accustomed to playing late into October.
St. Louis is sticking with the same rotation as in the division series. After Wainwright, it’ll be Lance Lynn, John Lackey and Shelby Miller starting Game 2, 3 and 4.
Bochy said Jake Peavy will start Game 2, but declined to go further, leaving Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong in limbo a bit.
“Right now we’re going to leave it at these two,” Bochy said. “But you can pretty much speculate what it’s going to be.”
Tim Lincecum remains a “swing guy” for the Giants, the same role the Cardinals have for Michael Wacha. Neither pitched in the first round.
“These are heightened times and it’s a big stage,” Lincecum said. “I’ll just be ready for whatever opportunity I get.”
St. Louis is in the NLCS for the fourth straight year and is seeking its third World Series trip in that span, having won it all in 2011. The Giants are in the NLCS for the third time in five seasons, and took the Series in 2010 and ‘12.
“It’s almost more relaxing than the regular season,” catcher Buster Posey said. “This is the fun time. I think both teams are lucky, too, because we play in front of big crowds all season.
“We are fortunate to have fans who pack it out.”
Matheny was a four-time Gold Glove catcher with the Cardinals and finished his career with the Giants. San Francisco’s payroll is $45-50 million higher than St. Louis, but otherwise he sees similarities in focus, stability and scouting.
“You have to have talent, you have to have a lot of breaks,” Matheny said. “I do believe when you see successful companies, whether it’s in baseball or in corporate America, you tend to see those same qualities.”
The Cardinals defied the odds and won as a wild card in 2011 and the Giants are trying to do it now.
Bumgarner followed up an 18-win season by shutting out Pittsburgh in the wild card game, and he’s 1-1 with a 1.13 ERA in two starts this postseason. Plus, he’s as dangerous as ninth-place hitters go, batting .258 with four homers and 15 RBIs.
Wainwright rattled off the stats during his time at the podium.
“I don’t feel like I deserve that much credit,” Bumgarner said. “But it’s nice to know you can help your team out a little bit.”
Bumgarner will be facing a lineup that feasted on lefties in the division series, beating Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw twice. The Cardinals totaled five homers off lefties after totaling eight during the season.
“It’s not the typical left-on-left matchups, they’ll stay in there,” Bumgarner said. “They seem pretty comfortable.”
Both Wainwright and Kershaw faltered badly in the division series opener, an anticipated duel devolving into a 10-9 St. Louis win. Wainwright, a 20-game winner for the second time, conceded Friday he’d aggravated an injury on the back of his elbow that’s bothered him off and on.
Wainwright took pains to reassure what he referred to as an “elbow-fearing world.”
“Now I’m on the mend,” Wainwright said. “I’m very confident about it because I felt that before, the exact same thing. I was able to recover very well from it. I have no doubts going into tomorrow.”