NLCS expectations: The unexpected!

ST. LOUIS -- They've been playing the sport of baseball for more than 200 years now, a game in which there is enough data that you can predict a player's chances of getting a hit on Tuesdays in July when the sky is overcast, there is a left-handed pitcher on the mound and the plate umpire's middle name starts with the letter D.

It's heaven for math geeks, a place where every moment is graded in order to analyze the past and predict the future. Only there's one problem: When the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals take the field in October, the numbers do, in fact, lie.

Take Friday night, for example, when most any fan would have predicted a Barry Zito implosion. He was facing a Cardinals team that had the second-best record in baseball against lefties, and he hadn't lasted past the third inning in his NLDS start against Cincinnati. So in Game 5, of course the Cardinals would win, clinch the NLCS and prepare to host the Tigers in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday, right? Guess again.

Seven-and-two-thirds shutout innings later, the Giants had a 5-0 victory, their second win in the series. They had earned a happy flight home to San Francisco, where Game 6 will be played Sunday night.

So what should we expect this weekend in the City by the Bay? If you've been paying attention to these two teams the past two weeks, you know darn well the answer is just about anything.

Neither of these teams takes its bat and ball and goes home easily. The Cardinals have made a mockery out of postseason normals with their comebacks against the Rangers and Nationals the past two years. And there are the Giants, who, on Friday night, became the first team in major league history to stave off elimination on the road four times in a single postseason, according to Elias.

At some point, there will be an obituary. The schedule demands it. The Tigers are waiting. One of these teams will win, and one of them will lose. For good. But how these two never-say-die teams will get there is anyone's guess. And the best guess is probably a Game 7 that goes 15 innings and 4 1/2 hours.

"As a media person, you have to go 'statistically this' or 'assuming that,'" said Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt. "But as a baseball player, we can't go off that. You can't put anything out there and say, 'This is what's going to happen.' Anything can happen in this game. I've seen it all. So I'm not going home until they tell me I can't play anymore."

Smart man. Especially considering this series, where nothing seems to make sense. How else can you explain inconsistent Zito, who wasn't even on the San Francisco postseason roster in 2010 and who had gone more than seven innings only three times all season, handcuffing the Cardinals and turning in his finest performance in a Giants uniform?

How do you explain Zito, a pitcher who had never bunted for a hit in his 12-year career and runs with an "Arabian horse gallop" -- his words -- squeezing one down the third-base line in San Francisco's four-run 4th inning?

Or tell me how Lance Lynn, who had one error in his career, plays target practice with second base and caroms a throw into center that same inning?

Or what about Tim Lincecum, the two-time former Cy Young winner who helped carry the Giants to the 2010 World Series title, pitching better out of the bullpen than in the rotation?

Or Kyle Lohse, who walked 38 batters all year, issuing five free passes to the Giants in Game 3 and allowing 12 baserunners in 5 1/3 innings only to be left smiling after the game because, yes, that effort was good enough to win.

Want more? Tell me how Buster Posey, who led the National League in hitting in the regular season, whose Game 5 grand slam against the Reds catapulted the Giants to this point, is hitting just .166 in the series, without an RBI?

Or what about little-known rookie Matt Carpenter, a kid who grew up with a Lance Berkman poster on his wall, filling in for injured Carlos Beltran in Game 3 and belting a two-run homer for the margin of victory?

With these two teams, nothing makes sense. Even Affeldt, an 11-year MLB veteran who swears he has seen it all, hasn't when it comes to these two ball clubs. He was stunned on a tarmac in Cincinnati as he watched the Cardinals, down to their last strike, score four ninth-inning runs to beat the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of the division series.

"I thought they had no shot," he said. "That's one I didn't expect."

And there are the Giants, who dug themselves out of their own hole in a division series, winning three straight on the road in Cincinnati to advance.

"They're not worried about how far they're down, how many games they're down," Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. "They're going to fight 'til this thing is over. And now we've made it more interesting for them."

In Game 5, the Giants were bolstered by the help of a critical error, the same way they were in Game 3 against Cincinnati. Against the Reds, it was a Scott Rolen bobble that allowed the winning run to score in the first must-win game of that series. Against St. Louis on Friday night, it was Lynn's toss off the second-base bag that helped escort the winning run home.

So what is it about these do-or-die games? How is it that both of these teams can play so well when their seasons are often an out or even a strike from ending?

"As an athlete, sometimes you play down to the talent or up to the talent you're facing," Affeldt said. "It fluctuates. That's human nature. In an elimination game, every inning is like the ninth inning. It's a matter of getting runs and getting outs. And teams like that can be dangerous to play. All of the sudden, your focus is heightened and every single thing you do matters. Those teams can be really hard to beat sometimes."

And these two teams do it best. Consider last year, when the Cardinals trailed Texas 7-5 in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series but managed to win that game 10-9 and take Game 7, 6-2. Or the division series against Washington, when they became the first team in the 109-year history of postseason play to fall behind by more than four runs in a winner-take-all game and come back to win.

Ryan Theriot understands the transformation that takes place when a team has to win. The utility infielder was a reserve on the 2011 Cardinals World Series champion squad and is now a backup for the Giants. So is there a difference in the way a team approaches an elimination game versus any other?

"100 percent," Theriot said. "It's not a situation you want to put yourself in on purpose, but there is definitely a different feel, a different intensity. It starts not only for the first pitch but before that, the second everybody gets in that clubhouse. It's just different."

Ryan Vogelsong, who will take the hill for the Giants in Game 6, agrees. Vogelsong gave up three hits and one run in five innings against the Reds in Game 3 of the division series, the first of San Francisco's four potential elimination games this year. The right-hander believes his team's strength comes from being overlooked all year, whether it was after closer Brian Wilson went down in April, Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games in August, the rival Dodgers made their blockbuster trade at the deadline or the team trailed the Reds 2-0.

"I don't think the intensity is different," he said. "We play the game hard every day. You win some, you lose some. But when you can't lose, I think we definitely do play a little bit harder."

So maybe this series is destined for seven games after all. Maybe the Cardinals need to have an offseason of heartache staring them in the face before they can advance. Or maybe, in a postseason that has defied logic, the Giants will write the latest chapter by winning their fifth and sixth straight potential elimination games to advance to the World Series.

For those who desperately seek an answer before the games begin, I offer an easy but flawed solution: Just look at the numbers.