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Cardinals return to St. Louis with playoffs past lurking

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen (74) and the Dodgers celebrate the 6-4 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals in game five of the National League Championship Series baseball game at Dodger Stadium. (USA TODAY Sports: Richard Mackson)

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen (74) and the Dodgers celebrate the 6-4 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals in game five of the National League Championship Series baseball game at Dodger Stadium. (USA TODAY Sports: Richard Mackson)

For the third time since 1996, the St. Louis Cardinals claimed a 3-1 lead in the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals are also winless, with a seven-game losing streak, in the three series, including the 2013 NLCS, after reaching that precipice of the World Series.

The Cardinals blew a 3-1 lead in the 2012 NLCS, when the San Francisco Giants stormed back and went on to win the World Series.

“There can be a little panic on their side,” said Brian Wilson, the Dodgers’ set-up man who was with the Giants last season but recovering from surgery in the postseason, “but this is the same particular situation they were in last year. They remember.

“There’s no panic on our part.”

The Cardinals deny being haunted by past failures on the playoff stage. Catcher Yadier Molina said Wednesday, when the Cardinals lost Game 5 at Dodger Stadium to send the series back to St. Louis for the “if necessary” games 6 and 7, that the media was the only group focused on the historical notation.

If anxiety isn’t an issue in the Cardinals’ clubhouse yet, facing left-hander Clayton Kershaw might bring it about before first pitch Friday night at 8:07 p.m. ET.

“We’ve kind of become America’s team because everyone wants to see a seventh game,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “Probably even the fans in St. Louis would like to see a seventh game, so I figure that everybody’s for us to win on Friday night.”

That is debatable, but there is no arguing the path the Dodgers took to avoid elimination. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez homered twice Wednesday, and left fielder Carl Crawford and catcher A.J. Ellis also went deep.

“Guys weren’t ready to lose today,” Crawford said.

Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA in the regular season), was the major league ERA leader for the third consecutive season, but the Cardinals fared better than most against him. Catcher Mark Ellis said it has a lot to do with their approach, labeling St. Louis the “most professional hitting team” in baseball.

The Cardinals will counter with rookie right-hander Michael Wacha (4-1, 2.78). The two matched up in Game 2 at St. Louis, and the Cardinals won 1-0 with an unearned run against Kershaw.

Kershaw, who pitched six innings in Game 2, has lost all three starts against the Cardinals this season despite compiling a fine 2.84 ERA. Kershaw is 1-1 with a 1.89 ERA in three starts during this postseason and 1-2 with a 2.88 ERA in eight career postseason games, including five starts.

Wacha pitched 6 2/3 innings in Game 2 and has allowed only one run in 14 innings in two postseason starts for a 0.64 ERA.

“Our focus for Game 6 is to score runs for Kershaw and let him do his thing,” Gonzalez said. “So if we can give Kershaw some run support, we’re pretty confident.”

If Game 7 is needed Saturday night, Wainwright (19-9, 2.94), the NL wins leader this season, would start for the Cardinals against rookie left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00). Ryu got the win against Wainwright and shut the Cardinals out in Game 3.

The Cardinals can take comfort in going home to Busch Stadium for the close-out games. They are not headed to Atlanta in 1996 to face John Smoltz or Tom Glavine and they aren’t taking on the 2012 Giants. In the simplest possible terms, manager Mike Matheny can boil down his pregame comments to two words: One game.

“We’re not going to San Francisco,” Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. “That’s a big plus.”

Matheny did concede his brought up 2012 in the clubhouse. Not to invite fear or consternation, but as a point of reference that reminds the team urgency is necessary at all times.

“Don’t live in the past but remember what happened,” Matheny said, “learn from it and see if we can change the course.”