SAN FRANCISCO - The 98th World Series is beginning to take shape, and it could come with a built-in theme song: "Born to be Wild."
Benito Santiago hit a dramatic two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning last night to give the San Francisco Giants a 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Pacific Bell Park and push them to the brink of the first Fall Classic involving two wild-card playoff entrants.
The Anaheim Angels won their first American League pennant earlier in the day after finishing a close second to the Oakland Athletics in the American League West. The Giants can join them on baseball's greatest stage next weekend if they can win just one of a possible three remaining games of the National League Championship Series.
Santiago, the venerable catcher cast into the difficult No. 5 spot in the Giants' batting order, made the Cardinals pay dearly for pitching around Barry Bonds with a towering shot off reliever Rick White that landed about five rows back in the left-field bleachers.
"It's a dream come true," Santiago said.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had chosen to walk Bonds with two outs and no one on in a tie ballgame, a move that goes against "the book" but is very much in line with the prevailing managerial philosophy on dealing with baseball's most dangerous hitter. The Cardinals also pitched around Bonds to bring the go-ahead run to the plate in the sixth inning, and J.T. Snow brought the Giants back from a two-run deficit with a long double to left-center.
Dealing with Bonds has been something of a no-win situation in this postseason. He has delivered some big blows on the few occasions that he has gotten anything to swing at, and his teammates have come through again and again when the opposition has shied away from him.
"A lot of times, a strategy is judged on whether it works," La Russa said.
"It didn't' work - bad strategy. Bonds is the most dangerous hitter in the game right now, so it's kind of hard to walk into the clubhouse after giving him a chance to get the hit that beat you. Santiago has been tough, but it's a little easier to take."
Santiago has emerged as one of those unlikely postseason heroes, delivering a two-run home run in Game 1 and driving in 11 runs in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Bonds, who singled and walked twice, has four home runs and nine RBIs in the Giants' nine 2002 postseason games, so there really isn't a right way to go about pitching the middle of the San Francisco order.
"The way I look at it, they spend a lot of time worrying about Barry," said Snow, who drove in his first runs of the NLCS. "When they put him on first base, we like it. We like hitting with runners on base."
The Cardinals tried to stage a ninth-inning comeback against closer Robb Nen and succeeded in scoring a run on a wild-pitch third strike and two singles, but Nen struck out both Albert Pujols and J.D. Drew with the tying run at third base to secure the save and the 3-1 series advantage.
"We'll get ready and come out tomorrow," La Russa said, "but this was a tough loss. The little fine things that we usually do we didn't do and it cost us some runs early, but we'll be ready tomorrow."
The Giants had returned from St. Louis with two victories and the knowledge that no team had ever lost the first two games of a best-of-seven League Championship Series at home and come back to reach the World Series.
But there eventually is a first time for everything, which is a thought that had to pass through the Giants' dugout last night when the Cardinals carried forth the momentum from their Game 3 victory at Pac Bell Park and scored two runs in the top of the first inning.
Fernando Vina opened the first inning with a double to left-center and scored on a groundout by center fielder Jim Edmonds.
Giants starter Livan Hernandez, who took the mound with a 6-0 record in October, kept the inning alive by hitting Pujols with a pitch, and Drew created a new jam with a single to center. Tino Martinez brought home a second run with a bloop single that fell just inside the left-field foul line.
That allowed Cardinals starter Andy Benes to take the mound with a two-run cushion. He proceeded to hold the Giants to two hits over 5 1/3 innings and only once allow more than one runner on base until one-out walks to Jeff Kent and Bonds prompted La Russa to go to his bullpen in the sixth.
La Russa might have been able to cut Benes a little more slack if the Cardinals had not allowed several scoring opportunities to go to waste in the early innings. Instead, he brought on White, who struck out Santiago before Snow electrified the sellout crowd with a two-run double off the left-center-field wall to tie the score.
St. Louis vs. San Francisco(Best of seven; *-if necessary)
TV:Chs. 45, 5
San Francisco leads series 3-1
Game 1: San Francisco, 9-6
Game 2:San Francisco, 4-1
Game 3: St. Louis, 5-4
Last night: San Francisco, 4-3
Today: St. Louis (Morris 18-10) at San Francisco (Rueter 15-9), 8:19 p.m.
*Wed.:at St. L., 4:19 p.m.
*Thursday:at St. L., 8:19 p.m.
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