ST. LOUIS – Adam Wainwright looked like an ace again and some of the St. Louis Cardinals' top hitters rediscovered their strokes.
On the verge of a repeat wild-card title shot, the defending World Series champions have picked a good time to put it all together.
"It's always nice to wake up and understand that if you win, you're moving on, especially when the World Series is at your fingertips," third baseman David Freese said after the Cardinals' 8-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 of the NLCS Thursday night. "Tomorrow's going to be fun either way."
The Cardinals can close it out at home Friday night in Game 5. Lance Lynn faces Giants lefty Barry Zito, and a St. Louis win would set up a 2006 World Series rematch with Detroit.
But the Cardinals realize it's not time to celebrate yet.
"We just have to keep our head down," manager Mike Matheny said. "Keep playing the game. Keep doing things right. Stay aggressive, stay within yourself, do your piece, and trust that we can pull together and do what we need to do."
The Giants are in a big hole after Wainwright threw seven innings of four-hit ball and a 12-hit attack roughed up Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco bullpen Thursday night.
Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina each drove in their first two runs of the series, and leadoff man Jon Jay also had two RBIs.
"In the postseason, the stats don't always look great," Holliday said. "A lot of times the stats, guys feel better about their swings than the stats show. Obviously, this helps with confidence."
The Giants won three straight to eliminate Cincinnati in the division series. Now they have to do it against a team that appears to have everything working.
"Every day is a new day," said Hunter Pence, who hit his first homer of the series. "The motto is to find a way to win and bring it back to San Francisco."
The Cardinals could have their top postseason bat back for Game 5. Carlos Beltran missed virtually all of Games 3 and 4 with a left knee strain, but is optimistic about playing after doing some jogging and hitting indoors Thursday.
"Right now, the plan is to come in tomorrow and do what I have to do in order to be in the lineup," said Beltran, who is batting .375 in the postseason with three homers and six RBIs. "Today was a better day for me, better than yesterday.
"Tomorrow is the day I need to go for it."
Lincecum was a bust in his first postseason start since the 2010 World Series clincher over Texas, giving up four runs in 4 2-3 innings.
"Right now, I'm obviously upset at myself," Lincecum said. "I don't want to go out there and put my bullpen in a situation where we have to use them the way we've been using them."
The two-time Cy Young Award winner with the quirky delivery earned a shot based on nearly spotless relief work earlier in the postseason, but reverted to regular-season form, when he was 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA, worst among qualifying starters in the National League.
Wainwright was rehabbing from reconstructive elbow surgery during the Cardinals' improbable title drive last fall. They earned the wild card on the final day of the season and then upset the favored Phillies, Brewers and Rangers to give manager Tony La Russa a chance to retire on top.
Under rookie manager Mike Matheny, the 88-win Cardinals were the final team to qualify this year, too. Once again, they've stepped up their game.
Wainwright bounced back from a poor outing in Game 5 of the NL division series against Washington, striking out five and walking none for his first postseason victory as a starter.
"This season has gone so fast to me, I just can't believe where we are right now," Wainwright said. "When I missed last year, in the offseason I was just like 'Can we please do that again next year?'
"As painful as it was not to be able to help last year, I feel like I'm a major contributor this year, and I'm having a lot of fun."
The lone damage against Wainwright came on Pence's 451-foot homer in the second that cut the Cardinals' lead to 2-1.
Just 12 pitches in, the Cardinals had two hits, a walk and the lead, and Lincecum got a visit from pitching coach Dave Righetti. Jay opened the first with a single, Matt Carpenter walked on four pitches and Holliday singled up the middle for the lead. Allen Craig tacked on a sacrifice fly.
Lincecum had retired eight in a row before getting knocked out in the fifth on a rally that started with Carpenter's double off the top of the wall in right-center with one out. The Giants had a good chance of throwing out Carpenter at the plate on Holliday's single, but shortstop Brandon Crawford's relay short-hopped catcher Hector Sanchez and Carpenter scored on a headfirst slide to make it 3-1.
Molina's RBI single with two outs chased Lincecum.
Pablo Sandoval hit a two-run homer in the ninth, but the NL West champs are on the brink of elimination.
"We have all the confidence in Barry," manager Bruce Bochy said. "We do need to get the bats going. They've been shutting us down."
NOTES: Cardinals Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Ozzie Smith made pregame appearances. The 91-year-old Musial toured the warning track in a golf cart while waving to fans and Smith threw out the first pitch. Smith's son, Nikko, a former American Idol finalist, sang the national anthem. ... With Beltran out, Matheny changed the lineup for the first time in the postseason. ... According to STATS LLC, the Giants have faced a 2-1 series deficit eight times in franchise history. They have lost Game 4 each time. ... Wainwright has a 2.48 ERA in 13 postseason appearances, four of them starts.