ST. LOUIS -- Before Tim Lincecum ran out of pitches, before the Cardinals poured it on, before the Giants' offensive frustrations mounted -- it was the play of the game. Because it could have changed the game.

It unfolded in the fifth inning of Thursday night's Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals had the lead, 2-1, but not the momentum.

Lincecum had give up those two runs in the first and since had mowed down the Cardinals. Hunter Pence's second-inning homer had made it 2-1.

NLCS

That is where it still stood when Matt Carpenter doubled with one out in the fifth and Matt Holliday followed with a sinking liner to right center.

That was the cue for Angel Pagan to show he has as much horizontal dive as he does vertical leap. Two innings earlier, he had soared above the center-field fence to snare a drive by Yadier Molina. Now, he lowered himself into a dive for Holliday's rope, which was sinking faster than Pagan could.

But in the same motion that he failed the catch, Pagan short-hopped the ball into his glove's sweet spot, rolled over and jumped to his feet and spun to unleash a virtually no-look precise laser to cutoff man Brandon Crawford.

Crawford pivoted and made an identically perfect throw to catcher Hector Sanchez. Carpenter, having had to delay to see whether Pagan would make a catch, still tried to score but wasn't yet even in the picture when Crawford's throw reached Sanchez.

Alas, the catcher went for the swipe-tag before he actually had the ball -- which squirted by him and into Carpenter, who slid across the plate safely. Instead of the inning ending on Allen Craig's ensuing strikeout, the Cardinals scored once more, and continued putting up deuces each of the next two innings.

Had Sanchez secured that throw, there is no scoring that inning, and the fate of a 2-1 game remains in the air.

Asked after St. Louis' 8-3 win whether completion of that play could have altered the course of the entire game, Pagan said, "Definitely."

"It would've kept us in the game," he said. "The way it went, they opened up the game a little bit. That's the way it went. [Crawford] made a good throw, we just could execute all the way. We did what we could."

Pagan was nearly a one-man band when it came to trying to rally the troops. In addition to that stellar play -- a combination of athleticism and intuition -- and his two hits, there was his theft of Molina.

"I can't tell you [whether the ball would've cleared the fence] but it was pretty close," Pagan said. "I'm glad I made the catch. I was just trying to get something going for the team.

"Sometimes, you can do that on defense. I was trying to get everyone pumped up."

His trademark salute to the dugout after the catch did that. But the effect quickly wore off as the Giants couldn't put up a fight against Adam Wainwright and sunk into a 3-to-1 NLCS hole.