ST. LOUIS -- Adam Wainwright had been confident enough to jokingly use the dreaded "C" word about his previous start, a bomb of a game in Washington a week ago.

"I completely choked,'' he said. "All part of my plan."

The plan was to motivate the offense. Just in case anyone mistook him, he added, "That was in jest."

It was no joke, or choke, that the Cardinals withstood the six-run hole he dug for them last Friday, came back to win and reached the NLCS. They gave the ball to Wainwright again Thursday night and, as manager Mike Matheny said, "We had a feeling we were going to see something special."

Wainwright and his teammates thrashed the Giants, 8-3, in NLCS Game 4 and moved within one win of the preferable "C" word: "Clinch."

They lead the series 3-1, and one more victory will give the defending world champions another pennant. They proved typically clutch and creative. Wainwright (seven innings, four hits, one run) outpitched Tim Lincecum; St. Louis batters had big hits, and many of them.

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"This was a good night for us," said Yadier Molina, the team's leading hitter in the regular season, who had struggled before going 2-for-4 with two RBIs Thursday night. "Every time you don't get hits, you don't help the team, that makes you feel frustrated."

The frustration was all on the Giants, who could not retire Matt Carpenter, the replacement for the Cardinals' hottest hitter, Carlos Beltran. A strained left knee forced Beltran to leave Game 3 in the second inning, only to have Carpenter come in and hit the deciding two-run homer. Thursday night, Carpenter walked twice and doubled in his first three times up, scoring twice.

"I'm happy for him. He really works hard,'' said Beltran, who hopes to be able to start in rightfield Friday night.

Carpenter's first run was part of a two-run, three-hit, one-walk first inning against Lincecum, the two-time Cy Young Award winner who had such a poor season that he didn't make the original October rotation. He started because he had pitched well in relief and because the Giants had no better options.

Lincecum allowed 28 first-inning runs in the regular season. Thursday night, he settled down for a while but could not make it through the fifth. Carpenter doubled and came home on Matt Holliday's single to center. Holliday, having advanced on the throw to the plate, scored on Molina's single. With that, it was 4-1 and Lincecum was gone.

"Timmy, he's done a nice job with all that we've asked of him," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "He was keeping us in the game there.

"They do have something going. There's no doubt about that, with what they did last year and what they've done this year," Bochy said of the Cardinals. "It's not over. We know it's an uphill battle, but we've been here before."

Wainwright wasn't here last year, when his team made its remarkable run from unlikely wild card to world champion. He was recovering from Tommy John surgery. "In the offseason," the winning pitcher said, "I was saying to myself, 'Can we pleeeease do that again this year?' "

One more win by his mates, and his next start will be in the World Series.