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NLCS Gm3: Bochy on Lincecum getting the call in Gm 4

ST. LOUIS -- There is a chance of rain once again intruding upon the proceedings at Busch Stadium on Thursday night. A 30 percent chance, at last check.

But there is an even better chance that Game 4 between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants (8:07 p.m. ET on FOX) will give us a clear idea of what we're dealing with here in the National League Championship Series. Because either the Cards are going to put a veritable stranglehold on their second consecutive NL pennant, or the Giants are going to show us, once again, their might and their mettle, their refusal to go quietly into that good night.

Game 4 is not an elimination game; it just sort of feels that way when you consider the weight of historical precedent. Because while the Cardinals' 2-1 series lead, earned with a rain-soaked 3-1 victory in Game 3, is hardly insurmountable, it certainly puts them in a good position to make this one heck of a happy homestand if they can take care of business in Game 4.

"We have to be patient, come back [Thursday] and just try keep working hard, inning by inning try to do little things," San Francisco's Marco Scutaro said. "Momentum can change so quickly. Look at last week, Cincinnati. We have to stay positive and keep fighting."

The result of Game 3 has had a rather resounding resonance with regard to the rest of the series in recent NLCS play. In six of the past seven years, the winner of Game 3 has gone on to win the series. And in the past 25 seasons of NLCS play, teams that have gone up 2-1 have gone on to win 17 of 21 times.

So that's good news for the Cards, who lost Carlos Beltran to a left knee injury Game 3. Beltran is day to day, and St. Louis hopes to have him back in the lineup for Game 4.

"We'll know more [Thursday], for sure," manager Mike Matheny said. "He's had some issues on and off all season, on and off his whole career."

As far as the Giants are concerned, if they go down 3-1, they'll have to try to become just the fifth team in NLCS history to recover and win it.

Clearly, then, Game 4 is a big one amongst big ones. And San Francisco certainly has a big-game pitcher working in its favor.

The Giants took their sweet time announcing a starter for this tilt, though the guess all along has been that Tim Lincecum would get the starting nod over Barry Zito, given how good "The Freak" has looked in a relief role this postseason. But San Francisco wanted to ensure it didn't need Lincecum in an emergency spot in Game 3 first.

You could call this an emergency spot. The last thing the Giants want is to face a potential elimination game on the Cardinals' home turf, with the left-handed Zito facing a right-leaning Cards team that is notoriously tough on southpaws. What San Francisco has to hope is that the strike-throwing poise Lincecum showed in those shorter relief stints (one run on three hits with one walk in 8 1/3 innings) can be adequately applied to the starting duties. He obviously had an alarming number of issues in the 2012 season proper, going 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA, but October has the ability to bring out the best in people.

"He's ready," David Freese said of Lincecum, "and we've got to be ready."

Adam Wainwright is another ace-type arm who had his own share of ups and downs in 2012. With Wainwright, though, the inconsistency was somewhat expected, given that he was coming off the Tommy John surgery that cost him all of 2011.

Wainwright was particularly displeased with his Game 5 start in the NL Division Series, in which his lackluster outing put the Cardinals in a 6-0 hole. But they rallied around him to win that one, and now they're hoping he can point them in the direction of a commanding NLCS lead.

"He can't wait to get back out there and help the team do something," Matheny said. "He's a very unselfish pitcher, but a competitor along the lines of a Chris Carpenter, who you know he's going to will himself to give your team a chance."

What would give either of these teams a better chance in this series is an increase in production from the middle of the order. The utter absence of big hits from the Nos. 3-5 hitters on both clubs has been stunning:

Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence: 6-for-33 with one RBI.

Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Yadi Molina: 5-for-33 with no RBIs.

That's a trend both teams desperately need to reverse. For the Cards, it could be an especially pressing matter if the left knee strain that yanked Beltran from Game 3 is serious enough to cost him a start. For the Giants, the unsettling middle-of-the-order situation could lead to Pence getting moved down and/or Hector Sanchez getting the start at catcher, with Posey moving to first to bump Brandon Belt.

However the two managers proceed, with or without Beltran and with or without the lineup tweaks, Game 4 is going to provide a clear forecast of the scope of this series. Comments