It doesn’t take much for self-doubt to creep into players’ minds in October. A bad hop here, a misplay there, and a playoff series that seemed firmly in your grasp can slip away.
The St. Louis Cardinals experienced this last year when they took a three-games-to-one lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series, only to lose the next three games by a combined score of 20-1.
They can only hope they don't follow suit after Monday night's 3-0 loss to the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLCS, a forgettable game in which the Cardinals made two costly mistakes on defense, one on the basepaths and couldn't put a dent in Dodgers left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu and relievers Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen.
The Cardinals won the first two games of the best-of-seven series by one run, out-dueling Dodgers co-aces Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. But they couldn't win a Game 3 started by their own ace, Adam Wainwright, and their series advantage was sliced to 2-1.
More important, the series momentum may have swung heavily toward the Dodgers, who got a huge emotional lift from the return of Hanley Ramirez from a fractured rib and an electrifying performance from dynamic right fielder Yasiel Puig, who snapped an 0-for-11 skid with an RBI triple and a single.
"We just have to worry about the game we're going to play," said Cardinals third baseman David Freese, who left in the fifth inning because of right calf tightness. "You start thinking about all these what-ifs, you're just going to get yourself in trouble. We have to come out here [Tuesday] and get a victory, for sure."
Much of the focus in the Cardinals' clubhouse Monday night was on a miscommunication between center fielder John Jay and right fielder Carlos Beltran on Mark Ellis' fourth-inning double — a ball that should have been caught, on Daniel Descalso getting doubled off second on a fly to shallow left-center in the fifth, and on second baseman Kolten Wong throwing to the wrong base on Ramirez's bloop single in the eighth.
But there was more ugliness on the cumulative NLCS stats sheet, which showed the Cardinals have scored only four runs in three games and are hitting .134 (13 for 97) with a .190 on-base percentage and .175 slugging percentage in the series.
"I think this series is about pitching," said Beltran, who drove in three runs in Game 1. "We've seen that. It's going to continue. We have to have better at-bats and score more runs."
That's not easy against the likes of Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu. The Cardinals' best hope for a breakout game could be Tuesday night in Game 4, when they'll face No. 4 starter Ricky Nolasco.
"If you look at who we faced, you have to scrape for runs," said Freese, who expects to play Tuesday. "There aren't too many blowouts in postseason baseball with these staffs going against each other. You have to take advantage of any opportunity you get."
Manager Mike Matheny said the Cardinals have been an even-keeled bunch all season, that they have "had some brutal losses and come back the next day like it never happened," and that should help them this week.
"Look at the Dodgers — we took the first two games, and they came out and won tonight," Freese said. "That's the recipe for a playoff team, to have tunnel vision and just worry about what you have to do."
Wilson, the Dodgers setup man and former San Francisco closer, was in the Giants' dugout for the 2012 NLCS but was recovering from elbow surgery and not available to pitch. He didn't feel any need to remind his current teammates about what his old team did to the Cardinals.
"No, they know — that's not something I'm going to start bringing up, being on past teams, especially rivals," Wilson said. "I'm not going to be like, 'Hey guys, remember the Giants?' Get booed in my own locker room. They know the importance.