ST. LOUIS - The St. Louis Cardinals are oh so close. They know better than to start celebrating yet.
To a man, the defending World Series champions kept their latest victory in perspective Thursday night. Before cashing in another wild-card run to a second straight pennant, they've still got to beat the San Francisco Giants one more time.
"We're not taking the last game to get into the World Series for granted," Matt Holliday said after an 8-3 win put St. Louis up 3-1 in the best-of-seven National League championship series with a chance to wrap it up at home. "The Giants have proven they're a great team and they had their backs to the wall against the Reds."
Seated next to Holliday on the podium, Adam Wainwright chimed in: "Well said."
The Giants won three straight to eliminate Cincinnati in the division series. Now they have to do it again against a team that appears to have everything working.
"They do have something, there's no getting around that," San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said. "It's not over. We've been in this position. We know it's an uphill battle, but we've been here before."
The Giants are in a hole after Wainwright threw seven innings of four-hit ball and St. Louis' offense roughed up Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco bullpen.
"This is where we are and what we've got to deal with," Giants right fielder Hunter Pence said. "The last series we were down in a similar situation, but this is a new series."
The Cardinals can close it out at home Friday night in Game 5. Lance Lynn faces Giants lefty Barry Zito, and a St. Louis win would set up a 2006 World Series rematch with Detroit.
Plus, the Cardinals could have Carlos Beltran back in the lineup. Beltran missed virtually all of Games 3 and 4 with a left knee strain but is optimistic about playing in Game 5 after doing some jogging and hitting indoors Thursday.
"Right now, the plan is to come in tomorrow and do what I have to do in order to be in the lineup," said Beltran, who is batting .375 in the postseason with three homers and six RBIs. "Today was a better day for me, better than yesterday.
"Tomorrow is the day I need to go for it."
Holliday, Jon Jay and Yadier Molina had two RBIs apiece to lead a 12-hit outburst by a team that batted just .198 through the first three games of the series.
Lincecum was a bust in his first postseason start since the 2010 World Series clincher over Texas, giving up four runs in 4 2/3 innings.
"That second inning was a little bit laborious, but the third and fourth were a little bit better and I thought I was going to carry it further in the game," Lincecum said. "I ran into some bumps in that fifth."
The two-time Cy Young Award winner with the quirky delivery earned a shot based on nearly spotless relief work earlier in the postseason but reverted to regular-season form, when he was 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA, worst among qualifying starters in the National League.
Wainwright was a glorified cheerleader while rehabbing from reconstructive elbow surgery during the Cardinals' improbable title drive last fall. They earned the wild card on the final day of the season and then upset the favored Phillies, Brewers and Rangers to give manager Tony La Russa a chance to retire on top.
Under rookie manager Mike Matheny, the 88-win Cardinals were the final team to qualify this year, too. Once again, they've stepped up their game.
Wainwright bounced back from a poor outing in Game 5 of the NL division series against Washington, striking out five and walking none for his first postseason victory as a starter.
"It was a big motivator," he said. "I know that I'm good enough to pitch in the postseason, to carry this team deep into the game, give them a quality game, a quality outing. Last time I didn't do it, but I knew tonight if I just believed in myself and went out there and executed pitches I would be in good shape."
The lone damage against Wainwright came on Pence's first homer and RBI of the postseason, a second-inning clout estimated at 451 feet that soared over the visitor's bullpen into the left-center bleachers to cut the Cardinals' lead to 2-1.
Now, the 14-game winner can just about taste his first World Series as an active player since striking out Brandon Inge as the stand-in closer for injured Jason Isringhausen in the 2006 clincher over the Tigers.
"This whole experience is so special as it is," Wainwright said. "But to get back to that World Series is always the way to go."
Holliday wasn't surprised by Wainwright's strong performance.
"You expect Adam to pitch well and pitch like an ace, and he did," Holliday said. "His curveball was really good. He located his fastball. No surprise. We all expect Adam to pitch the way he pitched tonight, but sometimes things like the Washington game happen. But he's tough as nails. We knew he'd pitch well."
Just 12 pitches in, the Cardinals had two hits and the lead, and Lincecum got a visit from pitching coach Dave Righetti. Jay opened the first with a single, Matt Carpenter walked on four pitches and Holliday singled up the middle for the lead. Allen Craig tacked on a sacrifice fly.
Lincecum escaped trouble in the second after issuing two more walks, one of them on five pitches to Wainwright. The Cardinals missed a chance to add on after Pete Kozma reached on third baseman Pablo Sandoval's fielding error to open the inning when he was thrown out trying to steal.
Lincecum had retired eight in a row before running into trouble in the fifth.
Carpenter doubled off the top of the wall in right-center with one out. He held up until Holliday's single fell in front of fast-charging center fielder Angel Pagan, but third base coach Jose Oquendo aggressively waved Carpenter home.
The relay from shortstop Brandon Crawford was in time, but it short-hopped catcher Hector Sanchez and Carpenter scored on a headfirst slide to make it 3-1. Molina's two-out RBI single made it 4-1 and was the knockout blow for Lincecum.
"He gave us all he had out there," Bochy said. "That was his last inning and he was close to getting out of that inning. He made a great effort on that ball and good throw. We had him at home plate and it's still 2-1. That's a big play in the game."
Pence, who called himself "the goat" of Game 3 after stranding seven runners, hit the second-longest home run by an opposing player at seven-year-old Busch Stadium with a drive that sailed over the visitors' bullpen into the bleachers in left-center.
Holliday's RBI single was the first RBI by a Cardinals starter since Beltran's two-run homer in the fourth inning of Game 1. Holliday entered 2-for-12 in the NLCS with no RBIs.
Sandoval hit a two-run homer in the ninth, but the NL West champs are on the brink of elimination.
"We have all the confidence in Barry," Bochy said. "We do need to get the bats going. They've been shutting us down."