Giants try to finish off Cards and punch ticket to World Series

( - Madison Bumgarner tries to pitch the San Francisco Giants into the World Series for the third time in five years on Thursday, as they attempt to finish off the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at AT&T Park.

Bumgarner has followed up a terrific regular season with an equally impressive postseason, as he has won two of his three starts and has allowed just two earned runs in 23 2/3 innings. He was phenomenal in his Game 1 start versus the Cards, scattering just four hits and striking out seven over 7 2/3 scoreless innings.

Dating back to the 2012 World Series, the left-hander's playoff ERA stands at 0.59, with 31 strikeouts and just five walks. Opposing batters are hitting .152 off him over that stretch.

Overall, he's 5-3 in 10 postseason appearances with a 2.58 ERA

"I think without question, he's better (than he used to be)," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "In this game, you never arrive. You never stop trying to improve as a player, and that's who he is. You look at his pitches, he has a better changeup, a better breaking ball. I think he's commanding his fastball better. I think he's smarter out there.

"I mean, he was really good when he came up. He did a great job for us. But if you ask me now, sure, I think he's improved overall as a pitcher, the way he holds runners, swings the bat. He had a good year offensively. All these things make you a better player."

If there was no Clayton Kershaw we may very well be talking about an NL Cy Young Award this season for Bumgarner, who set career-high marks in wins (18) and strikeouts (219) and pitched to a 2.98 ERA.

St. Louis will also be throwing its ace on Thursday, but Adam Wainwright has been anything but the Cardinals best pitcher this postseason, going 0-1 with an 8.00 ERA in two starts.

He hasn't gotten out of the fifth inning in either of his two starts and in Game 1 against the Giants he allowed three runs (2 earned) and six hits with three walks in just 4 2/3 innings.

"No, I have not been very proud of my starts this year in the postseason so far," said Wainwright. "I also know that I was doing my very best.

"There was no point in time where I wasn't as prepared as I've ever been for a start, and my arm just didn't respond like I wanted it to. But I'm very confident going forward."

Like Bumgarner, Wainwright figures to be amongst the NL Cy Young Award finalists after going 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA this season.

Still, no pitcher in baseball has thrown more innings since the start of the 2013 season than Wainwright, who has logged almost 513 (including the postseason).

"Nobody else we'd rather have on the mound," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We don't look at it in series. We haven't done that all season. We look at it as a game. They are letting us play again tomorrow. We can control tomorrow, and Adam Wainwright is going to set the tone for us. Everybody's got to follow suit and jump in and figure out a way to make it happen."

San Francisco moved one step closer to another NL pennant on Wednesday, as Buster Posey finished with three RBI and the Giants overcame an early deficit to pull out a 6-4 win.

The Giants bullpen, led by Yusmeiro Petit (1-0), only allowed one runner past first base over the final six innings, while its offense quietly pounded out 11 hits -- nine singles -- en route to a commanding 3-1 series lead.

San Francisco followed a familiar script, as two of its runs scored in the pivotal three-run sixth inning came without the benefit of a hit. In fact, they have scored 12 of their last 22 runs without recording a hit.

"When you put the ball in play, good things happen," Bochy said. "If you're not hitting long balls, you have to find ways to manufacture runs."

Kolten Wong homered in the loss for the Cardinals, giving them 13 home runs this postseason.

"We have a tough road ahead of us," Wong said. "Bumgarner is one of the toughest pitchers around, and it's definitely going to be a big challenge for us. But we have a lot of confidence in our guy."

Of course, the Cardinals held a 3-1 series lead over the Giants in the 2012 NLCS only to see San Francisco rally back and win the final three games en route to their World Series title.

San Francisco is 15-5 at home in the NLCS, the best winning percentage of any major league team with at least 10 games of LCS play. They are riding a five- game winning streak at AT&T Park in NLCS play and have won 14 of their past 17 at home dating to 1987.

The Giants took four of their seven meetings during the season with the Cardinals, outscoring them, 30-20.

San Francisco has played the Cardinals three other times in the playoffs. St. Louis edged the Giants in a thrilling seven-game series in 1987, but San Francisco has beaten the Cards both in 2002 and 2012.