WASHINGTON -- A photograph surfaced on Twitter early Saturday morning, courtesy of Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval. In it, a group of players -- including Sandoval and Tim Lincecum -- crowded around a television, bunched together on their idle team plane in Cincinnati. From the runway, they watched the Cardinals engineer a stunning rally to advance to the National League Championship Series.
Only then did the Giants learn which direction their plane would take.
Welcome to the historic 2012 playoffs, in which every Division Series went the full five games -- resulting in plenty of travel chaos for the winners. The Giants, unsure of their destination until the Cards finally bested the Nationals early Saturday morning, eventually set a westward course and headed home to San Francisco.
The Cardinals, still celebrating their victory, were not far behind.
"It'd be nice if it weren't five hours from here," outfielder Matt Holliday said, laughing.
In reality, the Cards happily accepted the inconvenience. When they eventually did head toward San Francisco, Holliday said, they would immediately begin thinking about the Giants, who now have home-field advantage for the rest of the playoffs.
There in Northern California, the last two World Series champions will play against each other. And if this series is anything as dramatic as the first round of the playoffs, it will be worth the price of admission.
"We feel good," San Francisco starter Matt Cain said. "We just want to keep carrying this over into it. We have a lot of work left to do."
Though the Giants have yet to announce their rotation, they know it won't begin with Cain, who pitched Game 5 of the NLDS. The club's best pitcher all season, Cain will most likely start Game 3 on regular rest, then come back to start Game 7, if necessary.
That gives them a slight strategic advantage over the Cardinals, who will not use their top starter, Adam Wainwright, until Game 4. The Cards will turn to Lance Lynn in Game 1, followed by Chris Carpenter in Game 2 and Kyle Lohse in Game 3. That lines up Lynn, Carpenter and Lohse for multiple appearances, with Wainwright potentially available out of the bullpen late in the series.
San Francisco will counter with either Madison Bumgarner or Ryan Vogelsong in Game 1, and possibly the other in Game 2. But manager Bruce Bochy could also give Game 2 to Lincecum, who was so dynamic in relief in the NLDS -- that is, if he decides not to stick with Barry Zito in the rotation.
Confused yet? In those ways, Bochy's pitching staff remains in flux heading into the series, though it should have less of an effect given the longer seven-game set. And because the Cardinals are somewhat hamstrung as well, both rotations appear as evenly matched as their regular-season ERAs might suggest: 3.62 for the Cards, 3.73 for the Giants.
On paper the Giants a hold slight advantage in their bullpen, with the Cardinals boasting the better offense. But both teams know that anything can happen in a seven-game series.
After all, both have been there before.
"It's amazing," Carpenter said. "We still have a ways to go. We are excited about today. It was a great comeback. But we have to get ourselves to San Francisco and start preparing for them."
The Giants will be waiting with a similar team to the one that won the World Series in 2010. Though many pieces have come and gone, including several who played key roles in the title run, the core of Lincecum, Cain, Sandoval and catcher Buster Posey -- one of this year's favorites for the NL MVP Award -- remains.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are playing without the departed Albert Pujols and the injured Lance Berkman, both of whom made waves last October. But they added Wainwright to the roster after his successful return from Tommy John surgery, signed the hot-hitting Carlos Beltran and brought back most everyone else from their title run, including NL MVP Award candidate Yadier Molina and World Series hero David Freese.
The two teams met six times during the regular season, with each winning thrice. And each has momentum, with the Cards coming off their wild ninth-inning rally against the Nationals on Friday and the Giants winning three straight in Cincinnati to upend the Reds.
"It's going to be a good series," Beltran said. "They have a good pitching staff over there, there's no doubt about that. And they were able to do something incredible, taking three out of three in Cincinnati. They're a real good team. They're home. It's going to be fun."