SAN FRANCISCO -- Now the Cardinals have given themselves something to really worry about. They have gone and put themselves into the most precarious position of the 2012 postseason: ahead. The bright side is that the Giants were competitive enough to make a deficit look very possible.

As it was, the Cardinals survived the burden of taking a six-run lead and held on for a 6-4 win Sunday night in NLCS Game 1.

The background, of course, is that both teams got here the hard way, overcoming steep odds, almost impossible situations and serious deficits.

Neither starter made it through four innings, but both bullpens were exceptional. The Giants held the Cardinals hitless after Carlos Beltran's fourth-inning homer. But the Cardinals' relievers had the final say. Six of them -- capped by Jason Motte -- kept the Giants scoreless for the final 51/3 innings and gave St. Louis a head start in the series. The next week will tell whether that was indeed a good thing.

For the Cardinals, the first inclination after they saw 6-0 on the scoreboard in the fourth, with Beltran's two-run homer to left knocking Madison Bumgarner out of the game, might have been to say, "Uh-oh." Getting ahead has not been a great strategy this October.

"I was thinking about that D.C. game. They were up 6-0, and [tonight] we were up 6-0. It shows you've got to keep playing,'' David Freese said. "We were fortunate enough our bullpen closed the door.''

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Going in, it was debatable which side had been more unlikely to get here. The Giants were down 2-0 in the Division Series and heading to Cincinnati for three games, and won them all. The Cardinals fell behind the host Nationals 6-0 on Friday night and scored four in the ninth inning to win Game 5, 9-7. They never will forget that.

"There was an atmosphere there that I'd never seen before. It was borderline high school football, where the guys are screaming at the top of their lungs," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "The message was pretty consistent: Keep playing this game and something good's going to happen."

At the start Sunday night, all the good things happened to the Cardinals. Freese, a postseason hero in 2011, hit a two-run home run in the second. Beltran's homer made it 6-0 and enhanced his long-ball stature. Entering the game, he was averaging a home run per 8.0 postseason at-bats, the best ratio of all time (Babe Ruth was second at a homer per 8.6 at-bats).

In between were typical contributions from atypical contributors. Daniel Descalso, used sporadically at second during the season but a strong performer so far in the playoffs, doubled in the fourth. He scored on a double by Pete Kozma, the rookie who is playing only because regular shortstop Rafael Furcal is injured. Descalso and Kozma had the tying and go-ahead two-run singles on Friday.

Pretty much on cue, though, the Giants responded to the six-run deficit with a rally in the fourth against Lance Lynn. They scored four runs on five hits, including a two-run triple by Gregor Blanco. It didn't end until Descalso made a diving stop and a flip for a force. By then, Lynn was gone and the game was on.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy, mindful of what happened against the Reds, said: "It's best out of seven. We've shown how resilient we can be. We hate to lose them at home, but it happens. We've got to wash this one off and come out and be ready to go tomorrow.''