The San Francisco Giants were hoping Tim Lincecum had found the form that made him a two-time Cy Young Award winner. Instead, he looked more like the pitcher who struggled mightily this year.
Now, the Giants need a big game from Barry Zito to prolong their season.
Lincecum allowed four runs without making it out of the fifth inning of San Francisco's 8-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League championship series Thursday.
The Cardinals are up 3-1 in the best-of-seven-series and can advance to the World Series for the second straight year with a win at home Friday. Lance Lynn, hit hard in Game 1, will pitch for St. Louis.
Then again, the Giants have been in this situation before. They were down 2-0 in the best-of-five division series before sweeping the Reds three straight in Cincinnati.
"These guys, they're fighters," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "And this club has so much character. We've been through something like this, and we've had our ups and downs. But I've said this so many times, how tough they are and how resilient they are."
Lincecum was relegated to the bullpen in the playoffs after going 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA, highest in the NL among qualifiers.
Pitching in relief appeared to suit him: Lincecum was 1-0 with a 1.08 ERA in 8 1-3 innings, including two hitless innings against St. Louis in Game 1.
The postseason showing was good enough that Bochy pulled Madison Bumgarner from the rotation, moved Zito back to Game 5 and inserted Lincecum.
But Lincecum unraveled quickly. Jon Jay singled leading off the first inning, Matt Carpenter walked and Matt Holliday got his first NLCS RBI with a single. Allen Craig — 0 for 9 in the series — lined to center field for a sacrifice fly, making it 2-0 with only one out.
Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said Lincecum was leaving his pitches up in the strike zone. "Anything up we crushed it," Molina said. "We hit it hard."
Lincecum agreed that too many pitches caught too much of the plate. He lamented putting his team behind right off the bat.
"That's the frustrating part, starting off 2-0 in that first inning," Lincecum said. You put your team in a hole and you have to scratch back. That first inning was really big."
The early trouble was nothing new for Lincecum — he allowed 28 first-inning runs this season, the most in the majors.
Carpenter narrowly missed a homer with one out in the fifth, settling for a double off the right-center field wall. Holliday singled and the throw beat Carpenter to home plate, but catcher Hector Sanchez couldn't corral the throw that skidded off the infield grass.
"We had him at home plate and still 2-1," Bochy said. "That's a big play in the game."
Molina singled home Holliday, chasing Lincecum after just 4 2-3 innings.
The Giants bullpen was no help, either. George Kontos allowed singles to Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma in the sixth and Jay drove in both with a double off Jose Mijares. Guillermo Mota yielded a single to Craig and an RBI double to Molina in the seventh, and Kozma singled off Jeremy Affeldt to score Molina.
One of Bochy's moves worked.
Hunter Pence, 1 for 11 coming in and dropped to sixth from fifth in the order, hit a 451-homer off Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright well over the left field bullpen in the top of the second for the Giants' first run. It was Pence's first RBI in nine playoff games. Pablo Sandoval hit a two-run homer in the ninth off Fernando Salas.
Still, the Giants are 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position over the past two games.
"We'll get some guys on base, we're just missing a big hit here or there," Bochy said.
Zito is 2-6 with a 4.89 ERA lifetime against St. Louis. He is just 58-69 since signing a big contract to go from Oakland to San Francisco in 2007, but had his best season as a Giant in 2012 — 15-8 with a 4.15 ERA.
In his first postseason start, against Cincinnati, he got an early hook in Game 4, giving up two runs in 2 2-3 innings in a game the Giants eventually won 8-3.
"You don't win as many games as he's won this year if you aren't throwing the ball well," Bochy said of Zito. "He's earned this. And we have all the confidence in Barry tomorrow."