Giants a win away from swiping series from Reds

JOE KAY AP Baseball Writer Published:

CINCINNATI (AP) -- With an out-of-character win, the San Francisco Giants are on the verge of an unprecedented comeback.

And everybody in Cincinnati is saying: Uh-oh.

Angel Pagan hit the first leadoff homer in Giants postseason history, and Gregor Blanco and Pablo Sandoval connected later for an 8-3 victory over the Reds on Wednesday that evened their NL division series at 2-all.

After dropping their first two at home, the resourceful Giants have moved one victory away from the NL championship series -- unthinkable when they landed in town on Monday. No team has recovered from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series by winning three on the road, according to STATS LLC.

This one can do it with a victory on Thursday at Great American Ball Park.

"Thanks to the win today, there will be a tomorrow," Pagan said. "And we are ready for that."

Matt Cain, who lost the series opener and has yet to beat the Reds in three tries this season, will start Game 5 against Mat Latos, who has a little personal history against the Giants. He was with San Diego in 2010 when the Giants eliminated San Diego on their way to a World Series title.

That offseason, Latos signed three baseballs with "I Hate SF!" as part of a fundraiser for the major league players' alumni association. After Wednesday's game, his wife, Dallas, tweeted: "2010 Padres are not the 2010 Reds."

There's plenty of angst to go around town. The Reds haven't won a postseason game at home in 17 years, going 0-3. They also dropped a one-game playoff for the NL wild card to the Mets in 1999.

One thing in their favor -- they haven't dropped three straight at home all season.

"I'd like to think that we still have the advantage," Reds outfielder Jay Bruce said. "We're at home. I expect Mat to come up with a big game. I'm looking forward to it."

So are the Giants, who were barely able to get a hit, let alone a win, while dropping the first two games. The pressure pulled them closer. Hunter Pence gathered them for inspirational speeches before the two games in Cincinnati.

"We feel good," NL batting champion Buster Posey said. "When you're down 0-2 you see what you're made of. We're not done."

It wasn't all about the offense. San Francisco's overlooked Cy Young winner played a starring role, too.

Tim Lincecum was relegated to the bullpen for the playoff series because of his dreary season -- 15 losses, 17 wild pitches. He entered in the fourth inning, pitched out of a threat that kept the Giants up 3-2, and kept going. The right-hander struck out six while allowing just one run in 41⁄3 innings.

"I knew he would play a huge role in this," manager Bruce Bochy said. "And I know of other situations where starters have been in the 'pen and really done a great job to help their team win. We knew Timmy would play a critical role in the series like he did tonight."

The Reds were hoping to start ace Johnny Cueto, but had to drop him off the roster a few hours before Wednesday's first pitch because he was still bothered by a strained muscle in his right side. He won't be available if Cincinnati wins Game 5 and reaches the NL championship series.

The way the Giants have started hitting, that's now in doubt.

They broke out against Mike Leake, who replaced Cueto and had a rough time. Leake threw his first career complete game in San Francisco on June 29 and was 3-0 career against the Giants.

Pagan homered to start it off for the Giants. Blanco hit a two-run shot in the second. The Giants had another breakthrough in the fifth, when back-to-back doubles by Joaquin Arias and Pagan ended an 0-for-14 slump with runners in scoring position during the series.

Sandoval's two-run shot in the seventh made it 8-3, matched the Giants' season high for homers and drew loud boos from the crowd of 44,375 -- the third-largest at Great American Ball Park. Fans quietly settled into their seats and used their white rally towels as lap warmers against the evening chill.

The Giants normally don't hit many homers -- only 103 during the season, fewest in the majors. They're only the seventh team since 1900 to reach the playoffs after finishing last in the majors in homers.

While the offense went to work, Lincecum bailed out the bullpen.

Bochy didn't hesitate to put the guys he wanted on the mound, using four pitchers in the first four innings. Lincecum settled things down, giving up only two hits in his second relief appearance of the series.

He threw 42 strikes out of 55 pitches and even batted twice -- just like a starter.

"The last two games, it's been about scratching and leaving it on the field," Lincecum said.

CARDINALS 8, NATIONALS 0

WASHINGTON -- Set aside the high-pressure task of postseason pitching that Chris Carpenter routinely masters for the St. Louis Cardinals and think about this:

Even the take-it-for-granted act of breathing feels odd on occasion now that he's missing a rib and two neck muscles.

Taking the mound for only the fourth time in 2012 after complicated surgery to cure numbness on his right side, the 37-year-old Carpenter spoiled the return of postseason baseball to Washington by throwing scoreless ball into the sixth inning, and the defending champion Cardinals beat the Nationals 8-0 Wednesday to take a 2-1 lead in their NL division series.

"To go from not being able to compete, and not only compete but help your team, to be able to be in this situation," Carpenter said, "it's pretty cool."

Rookie Pete Kozma delivered a three-run homer, and a trio of relievers finished the shutout for the Cardinals, who can end the best-of-five series in Thursday's Game 4 at Washington. Kyle Lohse will start for St. Louis. Ross Detwiler pitches for Washington, which is sticking to its long-stated plan of keeping Stephen Strasburg on the sideline the rest of the way.

"We're not out of this, by a long shot," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "Shoot, I've had my back to worse walls than this."

With the exception of Ian Desmond -- 3 for 4 on Wednesday, 7 for 12 in the series -- the Nationals' hitters are struggling mightily. They've scored a total of seven runs in the playoffs and went 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position and left 11 men on base in Game 3.

Rookie phenom Bryce Harper's woes, in particular, stand out: He went 0 for 5, dropping to 1 for 15. He went to the plate with an ash bat and no gloves in the first inning, tried wearing anti-glare tinted contact lenses on a sun-splashed afternoon -- nothing helped.

"Nothing I can do," the 19-year-old Harper said. "I just missed a couple."

All in all, quite a damper on the day for a Nationals Park-record 45,017 red-wearing, towel-twirling fans witnessing the first major league postseason game in the nation's capital in 79 years. They didn't have much to enjoy, in part because of the problems created by Nationals starter Edwin Jackson, who was on the Cardinals' championship team a year ago.

"I didn't feel like I was out of rhythm. I didn't feel like I couldn't throw strikes. I just missed across the plate with a couple of balls and it cost me," Jackson said.

He gave up four consecutive hits in the second, the biggest being Kozma's first-pitch homer into the first row in left off a 94 mph fastball to make it 4-0. Kozma took over as the Cardinals' everyday shortstop in September, replacing injured All-Star Rafael Furcal, and only had 72 at-bats during the regular season.

But he's only the latest in a series of "Who's that?" stars of this postseason.

With the Capitol Dome rising beyond left field, the crowd of today was ready to root, root, root for the home team, breaking into chants of "Let's go, Nats!" after player introductions and again after a four-jet flyover. And, boy, did they boo -- when Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay was announced as the game's first batter, when first-base umpire Jim Joyce missed a call, when catcher Yadier Molina trotted to chat with Carpenter, even when Carpenter paused between pitches to tie his red-and-gray right shoe.

"Carp's been a dominant pitcher his whole career. Big-game pitcher. He showed up," Washington's Jayson Werth said. "He pitched well today. We had him in some spots. We had him on the ropes a couple of times. We were just one bloop away from a totally different ballgame."

The Cardinals won 10 fewer games than the majors-best Nationals this season and finished second in the NL Central, nine games behind Cincinnati, sneaking into the postseason as the league's second wild-card under this year's new format. But the Cardinals become a different bunch in the high-pressure playoffs -- no matter that slugger Albert Pujols and manager Tony La Russa are no longer around.

Carpenter still is, even though even he didn't expect to be pitching this year when he encountered problems during spring training and needed what Cardinals manager Mike Matheny termed a "radical" operation in July to correct a nerve problem.

"Everyone had written him off, kind of," Jay said. "It could have been a season-ending injury, where he could have just gone home and said, 'See you later.'"

The top rib on Carpenter's right side was removed, along with muscles that were constricting blood flow up there. After Wednesday's game, he squeezed his big right hand with his left, explaining, "Basically, my nerves were getting squished down by all the scar tissue and all the muscles and everything. There wasn't enough space."

Still adjusting to the way breathing feels different, he returned Sept. 21, going 0-2 in three starts totaling 17 innings, so it wasn't clear how he'd fare Wednesday.

Yeah, right.

Carpenter allowed seven hits and walked two across his 52/3 innings to improve to 10-2 over his career in the postseason. That includes a 4-0 mark while helping another group of wild-card Cardinals take the title in the 2011 World Series, when he won Game 7 against Texas.

The 10 victories tie Carpenter for seventh-most, behind Andy Pettitte's record 19.

"If the baseball world doesn't know what an amazing competitor he is by now, they haven't been paying any attention," Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday said.

Carpenter collected a pair of hits, including a double off the wall in the fifth that was about a foot or two away from being a homer. When he reached second base, he raised his right fist.

Earlier, Carpenter stepped to the plate for his first at-bat and chatted with umpire Joe West.

"I say hello to him. And he said hello back, and he talked about what a beautiful day it was to play a baseball game. And I was like, 'You ain't kidding,'" Carpenter recounted. "Beautiful weather. The crowd is going crazy. ... There's no question you take time to reflect on that."

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