ST. LOUIS -- The Giants needed a freak start from Tim Lincecum here Thursday night. Instead, they received a bleak one.

As a result, their outlook for coming back to win the National League Championship Series is even bleaker.

After losing to the St. Louis Cardinals here Thursday night, 8-3, the Giants have fallen behind in the series, three games to one. They face elimination with one more loss. That could happen Friday night here in Game 5.

Lincecum, whose nickname is "The Freak," does not receive total blame for this unfortunate state of affairs. But he kicked off Thursday's proceedings with a dull thud.

"He had trouble getting the ball where he wanted," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "He just didn't have his command there early."

Lincecum without command is like the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger. When the decision was made to send Lincecum to the mound for the first pitch of Game 4, expectations were glorious. He had handled a shift from regular season starter to playoff bullpen dweller with aplomb and grace, figured to be as effective as he'd been during three relief appearances this month.

On those three occasions, Lincecum had allowed one run over 81/3 innings. Thursday, it took him just four Cardinal batters to allow his first run. And two more to allow his second run. By the fifth inning, Lincecum had given up two more and was gone.


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"He actually settled down and threw the ball fairly well," Bochy maintained, pointing out that the Cardinals were only leading by a score of 2-1 when they came to bat in the fifth. "He was keeping us in the game there. He gave us all he had. He's done a nice job with all that we've asked of him."

Thursday, however, he still needed to do more. Theories abound regarding Lincecum's struggles and troubles. The one that makes the most sense is strictly mental. As a starter, he either takes to the mound with too much on his mind, or not enough. Perhaps as a reliever, the mental portion of the job was just right -- not enough time to obsess over the job, but enough time to gear up physically.

But this is a Giants' problem larger than one man or one arm. In every sport, postseason playoffs against great opposition always expose a team's greatest weakness. With the Giants in this postseason -- even with the team's hitters struggling -- that greatest weakness has turned out to be starting pitching depth.

This is stunning, when you consider that this very same quality was considered a Giants strength at the start of 2012 season -- and a big reason for the 2010 World Series title. But even last week, when the Giants rallied from a deficit of 0-2 in games to come back and beat the Reds, starters were not the difference on the pitching side of the equation. The relievers were.

Bochy was not necessarily conceding that point after Thursday's game. He pointed out, correctly, that two other elements contributed to the loss.

One of those elements was a defensive misfire in the fifth inning on an attempted home plate tag when a relay throw from shortstop Brandon Crawford short-hopped catcher Hector Sanchez and skimmed off his glove, allowing the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter to slide home with his team's third run.

The other element was far more frustrating. For yet another night, the Giants' hitters could not find a way to string together enough hits to assemble a big inning. St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright was crafty in his seven innings. But there were opportunities.

The best one: In the sixth inning, with the Giants still trailing by just three runs, Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro hit back-to-back singles with one out but never scored when Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval couldn't produce. It was reminiscent of Wednesday night's game when the Giants left 11 men on base.

"They're shutting us down," Bochy acknowledged. "We'll get some guys on base, we're just missing a big hit here or there. They pitched well tonight. They pitched well yesterday. It would be nice, make life a little easier, if we could get some runs for our staff."

The bottom line? If you are a Giants' follower, you should get used to this phrase: "Barry Zito, mandatory season saver."

Yes, it will be Zito, the man who has been through so many ups and downs as a Giant, who will start Friday's Game 5.

To emerge victorious in their last playoff series, the Giants had to win three straight games under the most unforgiving circumstances.

Who believes in replays?

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.