- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2006

ST. LOUIS — It’s the little things that ultimately matter in baseball.

An outfielder slips on a wet blade of grass, a pitcher throws a ball too high to first, a third baseman decides to cut off a throw to the plate, a catcher can’t block strike three in the dirt and another outfielder comes up inches short of a diving catch.

Individually, they don’t seem to make much difference. Collectively, they spell doom for one ballclub and ecstasy for another. And when all those events come together in a couple of fateful innings, they can alter the outcome of a World Series.

Just ask the St. Louis Cardinals, who used some fortuitous breaks (along with a couple of big-time, clutch hits from Preston Wilson and David Eckstein) to pull off a 5-4 victory over the Detroit Tigers in Game 4 last night and move within one win of their first championship in 24 years.

The Cardinals, who last won a World Series in 1982, will play for the crown tonight in front of their own fans at Busch Stadium, owning a commanding 3-1 series lead over a Tigers squad that was supposed to run away with this thing themselves.

It hasn’t played out to form, though, as a sellout crowd of 46,470 at rainy Busch learned firsthand last night. Trailing 3-2 in the seventh, the Cardinals took advantage of three Tiger miscues to take a brief, 4-3 lead.

It began when center fielder Curtis Granderson slipped while trying to track down Eckstein’s deep fly ball, turning it into a leadoff double. Reliever Fernando Rodney then scooped up So Taguchi’s sacrifice bunt and fired the ball into the right-field corner for a run-scoring error.

Rodney, who escaped a sixth-inning jam with back-to-back strikeouts, nearly wriggled his way out of this one, too. He struck out both Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen but couldn’t keep Wilson (the former Washington Nationals outfielder) from lining a clutch single to left. And when third baseman Brandon Inge cut off Craig Monroe’s throw to the plate, Taguchi slid in with the go-ahead run.

That left the Cardinals six outs from victory, but that proved more than their bullpen could handle. Braden Looper opened the eighth by serving up a leadoff double to Ivan Rodriguez (the Detroit catcher’s third hit of the game and the series), and after “Pudge” took third on a groundout, St. Louis manager Tony La Russa summoned rookie closer Adam Wainwright to face Brandon Inge.

Wainwright was greeted rudely by the Tigers third baseman, who drilled a 1-0 pitch to right-center for the double that tied this game at 4.

The Cardinals, though, stormed right back in the bottom of the eighth, again with some help. With one out and a man on first, Detroit reliever Joel Zumaya struck out Juan Encarnacion on three pitches. However, the third pitch bounced in the dirt and through Rodriguez’s legs, a wild pitch that allowed Aaron Miles to advance to second base.

That proved crucial, because moments later, Eckstein lined a shot to left-center that just narrowly eluded Monroe’s all-out dive. The ball glanced off Monroe’s glove, Miles came around to score and Eckstein coasted into second with the RBI double that won the game for St. Louis.

That Game 4 finally got underway was cause for celebration itself. After a steady rain Wednesday resulted in the first World Series postponement in 10 years, officials were worried they might be in for more of the same last night. But the heavy rains held off until late in the evening, allowing the game to start on time, even if it was played in a cold mist that made the ballpark feel like something out of a Sherlock Holmes novel.

The key, as far as MLB was concerned, was the assumption that the entire, nine-inning game would be able to be played without interruption. No World Series game has ever been called before the ninth, and no one plans to end that streak this week.

“Even if there’s delays, you want to have, as best you can, reasonable playing competitive conditions,” La Russa said.

Of course, that philosophy led to Wednesday night’s postponement, the fourth of this postseason alone (three of which have involved St. Louis). This was only the Tigers’ second rainout of the month, but combined with the AL champion’s long layoff before the World Series, manager Jim Leyland’s club last night was playing only its fourth game in 12 days.

“We’re bored, to be honest with you,” Leyland cracked.

Not that the Tigers particularly showed it early on while jumping out to a 3-0 lead.

The igniter was Sean Casey, the contact-hitting first baseman who was bumped up in the order to the No. 5 spot to try to inject some life into a lifeless offense. He did just that, tagging a second-inning sinker from Jeff Suppan around his ankles and depositing it into the right-field bullpen for a solo homer.

Casey’s blast quieted a raucous St. Louis crowd that was hoping to see the home club move within one victory of its first championship since 1982. The air really let out of the place one inning later, when Casey and Rodriguez lined back-to-back, two-out singles to right to bring home two more runs.

As nice as Casey’s contributions were to a Detroit lineup that desperately needed them, Rodriguez’s resurgence was just as important. The All-Star catcher was riding an 0-for-23 slump entering this game, but he snapped out of that funk with a second-inning single and then kept things going with his third-inning RBI.

Granderson also recorded his first hit of the series after 14 failed attempts, jump-starting the third-inning rally with a double down the right-field line. Only Placido Polanco remained mired in his slump, grounding into a forceout to end the third and ultimately remaining hitless in 14 at-bats in the series.

The Tigers could have used a clutch hit from Polanco right there, because the Cardinals came right back in the bottom of the third to score their first run of the night when Miles singled, stole second and then scored on Eckstein’s line-drive double to left-center.

A pair of doubles by Rolen and Molina in the fourth cut the lead to 3-2, but that’s as close as Detroit starter Jeremy Bonderman would let it get before turning things over to his bullpen.

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