SAN FRANCISCO — The St. Louis Cardinals had their talking points at the ready, the message the same from one locker to the next: We won a one-game wild-card playoff. We won Game 5 of the division series. We can do this.
They talked a good game. They sure did not play one.
The Cardinals mixed sloppy defense with erratic pitching and virtually no hitting, botching their second consecutive chance to send the San Francisco Giants home for the winter.
Ryan Vogelsong gave up one run in seven innings and struck out a career-high nine as the Giants beat the Cardinals, 6-1, in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday.
For the fifth time in this postseason, the Giants faced an elimination game and won. They will play another one Monday, with momentum on their side and their best starting pitcher, Matt Cain, on the mound.
This one will be Game 7. The winner advances to the World Series.
"It's their pitchers," Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said. "They have been amazing the last two games."
That would be Barry Zito in Game 5, Vogelsong in Game 6. You could argue each threw the game of his life — Zito in the zenith of his post-fastball career, Vogelsong in a career reborn after a decade in the minor leagues and abroad.
The Cardinals have scored one run in their last 19 innings. Matt Holliday, their No. 3 hitter, did not play Sunday because of back tightness and might not play Monday.
But none of that explained how poorly the Cardinals played on defense. They have given up 10 unearned runs, an NLCS record.
The Giants scored four times in the second inning, the fourth time in the series they have had a four-run inning. They led, 5-0, after two innings, with starter Chris Carpenter struggling to find the strike zone.
Manager Mike Matheny let Carpenter pitch another two innings, the better to save the bullpen for Game 7. The Cardinals go with Kyle Lohse, who was rarely acquainted with the strike zone in Game 3.
If there was a play that exemplified the Cardinals in Game 6, it was this one: second baseman Daniel Descalso diving for a ground ball, only to have the ball hop up and hit him in the cheek.
If the Cardinals were not pressing, they did a fair imitation of it. In the first inning, the Giants scored their first run when third baseman David Freese bobbled a ground ball, costing himself a chance to throw home.
In the second inning, Vogelsong faked a bunt, then took a full swing and grounded to shortstop Pete Kozma.
Kozma bobbled the ball for an error. The Giants had one run, Marco Scutaro doubled home two more and Pablo Sandoval singled home another.
That was 5-0, with three unearned runs.
"Errors happen," Descalso said. "Nobody is perfect out there."
Vogelsong was close. He struck out the side in the first inning, two more in the second. He carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning, all with stuff he said was not as good as what he had in Game 2.
But he was laughing about scoring from first base, something he had never done before on a hit that was not a home run. When Scutaro doubled in those two runs in the second inning, Vogelsong was one of the two.
"I was looking for oxygen," Vogelsong said. "Couldn't breathe."
"Sorry, brother," Scutaro said.
"You can do it any time, buddy," Vogelsong said. "I'll take it."