SAN FRANCISCO -- It has come down to this for the San Francisco Giants, an offer their manager, Bruce Bochy, wouldn't have been able to refuse if made nearly seven months ago.
Someone walks up to Bochy prior to the April 6 season opener in Phoenix and says, "You will be able to give the ball to Matt Cain in a game that will determine whether you go to the World Series."
"Of course you would take that. Just like I'd take being told we were two games away from getting where we want to go," the manager said before Sunday's Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.
Ryan Vogelsong knocked down the penultimate step, with his 6-1 victory over St. Louis.
That put the ball in Cain's court, in his yard for Monday night in the first NLCS Game 7 since 2006, when these Cardinals survived the New York Mets as Adam Wainwright bent a called third strike past Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning.
Key stat: Lohse wasn't sharp in Game 3, but he was able to pitch through jams over his 5 2/3 innings to get around five walks and seven hits allowed, surrendering only one run.
Key stat: In Game 3, Cain allowed three runs on six hits over 6 2/3 innings, though his solid start was doomed by poor run support.
At AT&T Park
2012: N/A Career: 4 GS, 3-1, 3.42 ERA
2012: 15 GS, 7-4, 2.86 ERA Career: 121 GS, 47-38, 2.98 ERA
Against this opponent
2012: N/A Career: 5 GS, 3-2, 3.78 ERA
2012: 2 GS, 1-1, 6.94 ERA Career: 8 GS, 2-3, 4.94 ERA
Loves to face: Aubrey Huff: 5-for-27, 4 K Hates to face: Hunter Pence: 14-for-50, 2 2B, 1 3B, 2 RBI
Loves to face: Matt Holliday: 8-for-43, 11 K Hates to face: Carlos Beltran: 7-for-19, 2 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 5 RBI
Why he'll win: Lohse is 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA in three starts this postseason.
Why he'll win: Cain has grown each stronger in each of his three starts this postseason, lasting 5, 5 2/3 and 6 2/3 innings, respectively.
Pitcher beware: After walking one batter in each of his first two starts this postseason, Lohse put five on base in Game 3.
Pitcher beware: Among active pitchers with at least 200 career starts, Cain receives the lowest run support, an average of 3.85 runs per game.
Bottom line: Lohse has been the workhorse and quiet leader for the Cards this season, earning this shot to send St. Louis to the World Series for the second straight year.
Bottom line: Cain has been the ace of the Giants' staff, and they wouldn't want anyone else on the mound with a chance to go to the World Series on the line.
"Good for baseball. This is what makes this game even more exciting," Bochy said when Game 7 and Cain's role in it became reality. "We're excited to be playing the seventh game [Monday]."
The Giants will be taking their sixth crack at winning the first Game 7 win in their club's 130-year history.
"Nobody had won on the road after being down 2-0 in a five-game series either," pointed out San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford, unimpressed by that historic oh-fer.
Think the Giants will have the ball in the right hand to ice a Game 7?
Cain was perfect in the 2010 ride to World Series glory, pitching once in each round of the postseason and not allowing an earned run in 21 1/3 innings, while limiting the Braves, Phillies and Rangers to a total of 13 hits.
However, those efforts came in Games 2, 3 and 2. Now he has the chance to pitch his second clincher of this postseason.
Superlatives and adjectives will be worn out in an attempt to capture the magic of a winner-take-all Game 7, but for Cain, it's all about the simplest, most juvenile emotion: Fun.
"You almost have to revert back to when you were in Little League, because the game is about having fun," Cain said. "Sometimes when you put too much on it, it kind of ruins the moment for you. You don't end up playing as well as you'd like to if you put too much pressure on yourself."
Cain has already had a flashback moment this October. It came before he took the mound for Game 5 of the NL Division Series in Cincinnati. He thought back to the only other winner-take-all game he'd ever pitched: as a high school senior, for the Houston (Germantown, Tenn.) Mustangs in 2002.
"We had a game for getting to go to state [finals] against our rival school," Cain recalled. "But that didn't work out so well for me."
Ten years after he and the Mustangs lost, he and the Giants won against the Reds.
"I thought back to that game in high school [before taking the mound against the Reds]. I thought about what I did then," Cain said. "I know it's a long time in between, but I still tried to use that, going out there and still having fun with it, enjoying it, not putting too much onto it."
Good luck with trying to not put too much on his next winner-take-all challenge.
Cain will have a lot to do with either setting up the inaugural Tigers-Giants World Series, or letting history's fourth Tigers-Cardinals Fall Classic take place.
He has spent the postseason peaking toward this moment. It will be his fourth start, and each has been better than the one preceding it, thus far climaxed by his 6 2/3 innings Wednesday against the Cardinals, in which he allowed only three runs, but enough to seal a 3-1 defeat.
"I felt like I probably had the best command I've had out of the three starts," Cain said. "It took me a while to settle in the first game against the Reds, with the energy and everything else going around. I wasn't really overdoing anything, but with the nerves and the overhype ... stuff like that.
"The other day [in that Wednesday start in St. Louis] was the best stuff that I had, and I'll try to take that into this start."
He'll also take into it his band of Giants teammates, who will attempt to run their table of elimination games: five down, one to go for a return to the World Series.
Groping to assess what makes them so good with their backs pancaked against the proverbial wall, Cain finally gave up.
"You know, I don't really know," Cain said. "But for some reason it seems like ... I wouldn't say we like it, but it seems like guys are playing really well when we get in this situation. Guys are just kind of letting it all hang out, and it seems to be working out really well."
"It's the hunger to be in the World Series," Angel Pagan said. "We showed it in Cincinnati; we're showing it right now."
Show and tell ... your grandkids decades from now. Cain is working on writing the next chapter of that tale.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.