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Senior Baseball Columnist

For clubs as stubborn as Cards and Giants, NLCS was bound to return to the Bay

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Ryan Vogelsong will try to help the Giants force Game 7 against the Cards. (Getty Images)  
Ryan Vogelsong will try to help the Giants force Game 7 against the Cards. (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- When the lights go down in the city ... aw, c'mon, you didn't expect the lights to dim in that city after only five games, did you? Not in this series.

We were always coming back to San Francisco for Game 6, with apologies to Lance Lynn, Yadier Molina and whatever this year's version of the Rally Squirrel is. It was a no-brainer, no matter how close the Cardinals came to tossing the Giants into the Mississippi River with a cement block attached to their ankles.

Have you been watching these two remarkable clubs?

"I don't necessarily see them as pesky as much as just talented," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Saturday afternoon. "Same kind of makeup that we have: They aren't going to go away, and neither are we. And we knew that going into this thing."

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This is what these guys do. Both of them. They defy death. They walk the tightrope. They land, cat-like, on their feet.

Madison Bumgarner hits the wall? Barry Zito steps into a time machine and, presto! Suddenly, it's 2006.

Carlos Beltran's old man knees turn grumpy? Matt Carpenter steps right up and clouts a two-run homer.

The Giants lose two at home to open October? No problem, they storm through Cincinnati to win three.

The Cardinals trail 6-0 in Washington? Ha.

From Redbird red alerts to the tall tales of Gi-antics, now St. Louis leads 3 games to 2 and hands the ball to the old Rib King himself, Chris Carpenter, for its second attempt to eliminate the Giants in as many games. We'll see how that goes.

Just his name, Carpenter, describes the job description of doctors who fixed him earlier this summer. Speaking of dramatic comebacks and Desperate Ballplayers scripts.

Carpenter, 37, underwent a procedure in July to remove a rib that was choking off a bundle of nerves running to his right arm, leaving it numb. Carpenter's first rib on his right side was removed.

"They go in there, they take out your first rib, which is underneath your collarbone, with a pair of hedge-clipping-looking things," Carpenter said memorably last week, continuing to describe how surgeons also removed some scalene muscles -- small neck muscles -- to alleviate pressure on the nerves.

Initially, he wasn't supposed to throw off of a mound until October. But before he underwent the July procedure, he asked doctors how to best get himself into shape before the operation to hasten recovery afterward. Doctors gave him a plan, and Carpenter spent about two weeks essentially doing "pre-rehabilitation" work.

Quite possibly, he wound up designing blueprints for those who follow him in the procedure. By doing the pre-operation work, all he had to do afterward was to wait for the stitches to come out before resuming his rehab at a far more advanced level.

Consequently, he began throwing off of a mound in late August, returned to the Cardinals in late September and has made two postseason starts. He earned the win in Game 3 at Washington, holding the Nationals scoreless over 5 2/3 innings, scattering seven hits. Then, he was the losing pitcher in Game 2 of the NLCS at San Francisco, an off-kilter outing in which he surrendered five runs (two earned) and six hits in four innings.

In the NLCS game, Carpenter fought his fastball throughout, never really gaining command of it. One National League scout says he "didn't think Carpenter looked comfortable."

"I feel like my stuff is getting better each time I go out there," Carpenter said. "But the last time out, my stuff went backward a little bit. I had some nice work between that start and this start and I'm looking forward to going back out there."

What the Cardinals love is Carpenter's competitiveness, and ability to come up big in big moments. He started and won two clinching games last October -- Game 5 of the Division Series against the Phillies, and Game 7 of the World Series against the Rangers.

"You have a rare few who can compete when they don't have their whole arsenal," Matheny said. "Chris Carpenter is one of those. But it's a different game when he has his fastball, and it's feeling good coming out of his hand."

Each Game 6 starting pitcher mirrors his team in authoring comebacks. Ryan Vogelsong, 35, who triumphed over Carpenter in Game 2 of this NLCS, arrives at Game 6 having been released twice previously and having pitched three seasons in Japan.

Originally drafted by the Giants, he was traded to the Pirates in the Jason Schmidt deal in 2001. He never found his groove, underwent Tommy John ligament transfer surgery and, eventually, the Pirates allowed him to become a free agent. The Phillies and Angels each employed him at the Triple-A level and then said, no thanks.

"He absolutely has taken advantage of new life here in San Francisco," Matheny said of Vogelsong. "He's thrown the ball extremely well."

"Great matchup," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of Vogelsong-Carpenter. "You have a guy that has a tremendous record in postseason, and Vogey is throwing the ball well now. It's going to be a great game."

Meantime, no question, what we're seeing now is more blood and guts than vintage Carpenter.

"We've seen some flashes of the vintage Carpenter," Matheny said. "I was very happy with what we saw in our playoff game in Washington. He had a good mix of everything. The last game, it looked to me like he was just competing and he was trying to find some things that weren't naturally coming to him that day.

"He's been there and done that before. And he's been there and done that with less than his best stuff. We know Chris Carpenter is going to do something special each time he goes out there. If he has his good stuff, it's going to be fun to watch."

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