...a Game 7 to determine the NL champion

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...a Game 7 to determine the NL champion

From Comcast SportsNetSAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Chris Carpenter walked off the mound, and the fans cheered him once again.Giants fans, that is.The orange towel-twirling crowd at AT&T Park saw San Francisco send the St. Louis star to an early exit in a 6-1 win Sunday night that forced the NL championship series to a decisive Game 7."The bottom line is," Carpenter said, "I'm not giving my team a chance to win."The Cardinals' longtime postseason ace came back from a complicated operation that removed a rib and two neck muscles just to get on the mound again this October for the reigning World Series champions. All of that success, though, has evaporated in his last two starts in San Francisco.Carpenter allowed five runs in four shaky innings -- identical to his loss earlier in Game 2. Not what the Cardinals had come to expect from him in the postseason, a resume that includes a Game 7 win in last year's World Series.And so the wild-card Cardinals were pushed to the brink of elimination once more. They're plenty familiar with that situation.Carpenter and St. Louis won the decisive Game 5 of the division series at Philadelphia last season, then the Cardinals overcame a 3-2 deficit in the World Series to beat Texas. They won the winner-take-all wild-card game at Atlanta this month and rallied in the ninth at Washington in Game 5 of the division series.Now they must do it again.Giants ace Matt Cain will take the mound for Game 7 in San Francisco on Monday night opposite Kyle Lohse in a rematch of a rain-delayed Game 3, which the Cardinals won in St. Louis. There's also a rare rainy forecast for San Francisco for the clincher."We've been in this spot before," second baseman Daniel Descalso said. "We're not going to be intimidated by it."If the Cardinals hope to return to the World Series, they'll need to find some stronger pitching and defense -- and fast.Not to mention a little offense, too.Allen Craig's two-out single in the sixth drove home Carlos Beltran for the Cardinals' only run against Ryan Vogelsong, who struck out a career-high nine in seven innings of four-hit ball. St. Louis had gone 15 innings without scoring after lefty Barry Zito and Co. held it scoreless in Game 5.Carpenter allowed six hits and three unearned runs, the same as he did in Game 2 at San Francisco, except he had only one strikeout in that outing. The 10 unearned runs allowed by the Cardinals over the series is the most in NLCS history, according to STATS LLC. Two teams have allowed nine.Talk about St. Louis blues."The one thing I know is these guys take these ones hard," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We've had a number of losses this season that felt like we've been kicked in the gut as we're walking off the field. And what I have admired about this club is they show up tomorrow the exact same guys that they showed up here today."They have no choice anymore.The only other time the Cardinals opened a 3-1 lead in the NLCS came in 1996, when they lost to the Atlanta Braves in seven games. San Francisco, which never faced an elimination game in winning the 2010 World Series title, is 5-0 when pushed to the edge this postseason.St. Louis has won its last six games when facing elimination. After taking a 3-1 lead before being held scoreless in Game 5 to force the series back to San Francisco, the Cardinals were hoping to avoid having to extend that streak.They Giants simply wouldn't let them.After Marco Scutaro drew a one-out walk in the first inning, Pablo Sandoval doubled over the head of Jon Jay as the center fielder got turned around fighting the sun and shadows during the twilight start. Scutaro scored on Buster Posey's groundout -- which third baseman David Freese bobbled on the exchange to eliminate any chance at a throw home -- to give the Giants a 1-0 lead.With Brandon Crawford trying to steal second on the pitch, Vogelsong chopped a ball that rookie shortstop Pete Kozma couldn't handle, allowing Brandon Belt to score in the second. Then Scutaro hit a two-run double to left and Sandoval singled on the 10th pitch against Carpenter to put the Giants ahead 5-0.Adding to the Cardinals' concerns is the status of one of their best hitters.Matt Carpenter replaced Matt Holliday in St. Louis' lineup when the left fielder was scratched about 45 minutes before first pitch because of lower back tightness, and Matheny said after the team will have to "wait to see" on Holliday's status for Game 7. Carpenter started at first base and batted second, Craig shifted from first to left field and Beltran slid back a spot to third while playing right field.With Vogelsong on the mound to pace San Francisco's scintillating start and Carpenter struggling again, Holliday's absence might not have mattered much."We've had some games where we stack on runs and then we go absolutely hitless almost, for a while, or anything of impact," Matheny said. "But at any day we know that our offense can pull out quite a bit of production. Hopefully it's (Monday)."

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

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Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.