SAN FRANCISCO – Chris Carpenter walked off the mound, and the fans cheered him once again.
Giants fans, that is.
The orange towel-twirling crowd at AT&T Park saw San Francisco send the St. Louis star to an early exit in a 6-1 win Sunday night that forced the NL championship series to a decisive Game 7.
"The bottom line is," Carpenter said, "I'm not giving my team a chance to win."
The Cardinals' longtime postseason ace came back from a complicated operation that removed a rib and two neck muscles just to get on the mound again this October for the reigning World Series champions. All of that success, though, has evaporated in his last two starts in San Francisco.
Carpenter allowed five runs in four shaky innings — identical to his loss earlier in Game 2. Not what the Cardinals had come to expect from him in the postseason, a resume that includes a Game 7 win in last year's World Series.
And so the wild-card Cardinals were pushed to the brink of elimination once more. They're plenty familiar with that situation.
Carpenter and St. Louis won the decisive Game 5 of the division series at Philadelphia last season, then the Cardinals overcame a 3-2 deficit in the World Series to beat Texas. They won the winner-take-all wild-card game at Atlanta this month and rallied in the ninth at Washington in Game 5 of the division series.
Now they must do it again.
Giants ace Matt Cain will take the mound for Game 7 in San Francisco on Monday night opposite Kyle Lohse in a rematch of a rain-delayed Game 3, which the Cardinals won in St. Louis. There's also a rare rainy forecast for San Francisco for the clincher.
"We've been in this spot before," second baseman Daniel Descalso said. "We're not going to be intimidated by it."
If the Cardinals hope to return to the World Series, they'll need to find some stronger pitching and defense — and fast.
Not to mention a little offense, too.
Allen Craig's two-out single in the sixth drove home Carlos Beltran for the Cardinals' only run against Ryan Vogelsong, who struck out a career-high nine in seven innings of four-hit ball. St. Louis had gone 15 innings without scoring after lefty Barry Zito and Co. held it scoreless in Game 5.
Carpenter allowed six hits and three unearned runs, the same as he did in Game 2 at San Francisco, except he had only one strikeout in that outing. The 10 unearned runs allowed by the Cardinals over the series is the most in NLCS history, according to STATS LLC. Two teams have allowed nine.
Talk about St. Louis blues.
"The one thing I know is these guys take these ones hard," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We've had a number of losses this season that felt like we've been kicked in the gut as we're walking off the field. And what I have admired about this club is they show up tomorrow the exact same guys that they showed up here today."
They have no choice anymore.
The only other time the Cardinals opened a 3-1 lead in the NLCS came in 1996, when they lost to the Atlanta Braves in seven games. San Francisco, which never faced an elimination game in winning the 2010 World Series title, is 5-0 when pushed to the edge this postseason.
St. Louis has won its last six games when facing elimination. After taking a 3-1 lead before being held scoreless in Game 5 to force the series back to San Francisco, the Cardinals were hoping to avoid having to extend that streak.
They Giants simply wouldn't let them.
After Marco Scutaro drew a one-out walk in the first inning, Pablo Sandoval doubled over the head of Jon Jay as the center fielder got turned around fighting the sun and shadows during the twilight start. Scutaro scored on Buster Posey's groundout — which third baseman David Freese bobbled on the exchange to eliminate any chance at a throw home — to give the Giants a 1-0 lead.
With Brandon Crawford trying to steal second on the pitch, Vogelsong chopped a ball that rookie shortstop Pete Kozma couldn't handle, allowing Brandon Belt to score in the second. Then Scutaro hit a two-run double to left and Sandoval singled on the 10th pitch against Carpenter to put the Giants ahead 5-0.
Adding to the Cardinals' concerns is the status of one of their best hitters.
Matt Carpenter replaced Matt Holliday in St. Louis' lineup when the left fielder was scratched about 45 minutes before first pitch because of lower back tightness, and Matheny said after the team will have to "wait to see" on Holliday's status for Game 7. Carpenter started at first base and batted second, Craig shifted from first to left field and Beltran slid back a spot to third while playing right field.
With Vogelsong on the mound to pace San Francisco's scintillating start and Carpenter struggling again, Holliday's absence might not have mattered much.
"We've had some games where we stack on runs and then we go absolutely hitless almost, for a while, or anything of impact," Matheny said. "But at any day we know that our offense can pull out quite a bit of production. Hopefully it's (Monday)."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP