SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants can boldly go where they haven't gone before: into the winner's circle after Game 7.
Five times in franchise history, from New York to the West Coast, the Giants have extended a best-of-seven postseason series to its fullest extent and came away frustrated. They appear poised to end that skid in Monday night's finale of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, having won twice in a row to extend their streak of consecutive wins in elimination games to five.
The Giants must strike the proper balance between playing relaxed and taking nothing for granted. As center fielder Angel Pagan said, "We can't try to do more than we can do. We have to keep playing the way we've been playing and we'll be fine."
Here are three elements that could prove essential to a winning Giants performance in the season's biggest game thus far:
1. Cain-do: The Giants couldn't have planned it any better. They'll attempt to complete their remarkable comeback from a 3-1 series deficit behind Matt Cain, their best regular-season pitcher. Cain finished 8-3 with a 2.03 ERA in 15 starts at AT&T Park, a body of work which included a June 13 perfect game against Houston. He'll be pitching on his usual four days' rest, which bodes well for the Giants.
LCS Game 7s
Cain, who started and earned the decision in the NL's July 10 All-Star Game triumph at Kansas City, hasn't shown his Midsummer Classic form in the postseason, recording a 4.67 ERA in three starts. But he has steadily improved while allowing three runs in each October outing. He worked five innings in Game 1 of the NL Division Series against Cincinnati, 5 2/3 innings in Game 5 and then 6 2/3 innings in Game 3 of the NLCS.
"I felt like ... the best command I had out of the three starts was the other day against the Cardinals," Cain said Sunday.
If he continues that progress, the Giants should be in good shape.
2. Don't change a thing: Momentum obviously favors the Giants. They've won two consecutive NLCS games at AT&T Park, dispelling the talk about their inability to thrive at home. They'll have Cain on the mound and a capacity crowd behind them.
All of this could be blunted by a three-run homer from Carlos Beltran or more stingy pitching by Kyle Lohse, who allowed the Giants one run in 5 2/3 innings in Game 3. But they shouldn't worry about such possibilities.
The Giants must bear in mind that they've hit their stride. Now that they've nearly reached the summit that seemed so unattainable, there's no need to start scrambling up the path.
"We've been in this position for two weeks now, it seems like," left-hander Jeremy Affeldt said. "I think we've handled it very, very well. We don't have to change our mentality. We just have to play hard and see what happens at the end of the game."
3. Precision, precision, precision: Typically, the Cardinals don't beat themselves. But they've shown the Giants how not to win by surrendering 10 unearned runs during the series.
"The team that executes is normally the one that's going to be on top," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.
Those are words to live by for any team in any sport. They certainly apply to the Giants in this instance. The infield has remained sure-handed. Outfielders have covered acres of ground. For two games, San Francisco pitching has been nearly flawless, surrendering one run and 12 hits. The pitching-and-defense combination that has sustained the Giants in successful times has remained airtight. Nine more innings of this should help them make a strong bid toward reaching their second World Series in three years.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.