Cards inch to a 3-1 lead

Hit just off glove, slip, error push sloppy Tigers to brink

Cardinals 5 Tigers 4

World Series

October 27, 2006|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun Reporter

ST. LOUIS -- Perhaps it's poetic justice that the hero of a World Series game that almost wasn't for a team that almost shouldn't still be kicking was a 5-foot-7 shortstop known more for his grit than his hits.

The biggest mystery surrounding Game 4 here was whether the nasty rain that washed out Wednesday's scheduled start would return last night. It didn't, but the cloud of uncertainty that has enveloped much of this World Series loomed even as plucky St. Louis Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein's fly ball hung in the air in the bottom of the eighth inning.

It touched the glove tip of diving Detroit Tigers left fielder Craig Monroe and then plopped to the ground as the red-clad Cardinals faithful, holding its collective breath, gasped with glee.

Eckstein's fourth hit and third double of the chilly evening scored Aaron Miles to give the Cardinals a one-run advantage that they turned into a 5-4 victory and a commanding 3-1 lead in the World Series.

"I was hoping it was going to find a little bit of dirt or grass out there," Eckstein said. "It just barely got out of the reach of his glove."

The Cardinals, who won just 83 games during the regular season, are one victory away from becoming World Series champions for the first time since 1982.

Weather permitting, they could wrap it up tonight at home.

For the first three innings the Tigers, who needed the win to draw even in the series, took control, grabbing a 3-0 lead. But no way was that early lead holding up in a series this evenly matched. So the Cardinals, who may end up as the World Series champion with the worst winning percentage in baseball history, inched back.

After single runs in the third and fourth innings, they took the lead in the seventh, gave it back in the top of the eighth and then went ahead for good with Eckstein's double against Detroit fireballer Joel Zumaya.

"Game-winning hit against a guy throwing 100 [mph]. That's all you need to know," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "[Eckstein's] the toughest guy I have ever seen in a uniform."

Monroe said he wasn't playing deep because he didn't expect the 175-pound shortstop to drive the ball.

"You've got to give that guy credit," Monroe said. "He isn't the biggest guy. He isn't the strongest guy, but he grinds it out."

Zumaya set up the rally by allowing a walk and throwing a wild pitch that put Miles into scoring position. Cardinals closer Adam Wainwright pitched a perfect ninth to secure the win. But Eckstein's hit and Monroe's just-miss was the difference.

"I wouldn't change anything about the play," Monroe said. "He did what he is supposed to do and I gave it my best effort."

The 53-degree game-time temperature was the highest so far in this World Series, edging out Game 1 in Detroit by a degree. A steady mist made things slick - and a little sloppiness went a long way.

With the Cardinals trailing 3-2 in the seventh, Eckstein hit a fly ball toward center fielder Curtis Granderson, who, like Monroe, was playing fairly shallow.

Granderson turned to give chase, but slipped and fell on the slick outfield grass. The ball landed a few feet to Granderson's left as Eckstein reached second. Pinch hitter So Taguchi then dropped a sacrifice bunt that was fielded by Tigers reliever Fernando Rodney. Once again, a Tigers pitcher turned the routine into a nightmare.

Rodney's throw sailed into foul territory in right field, allowing Eckstein to tie the game at 3. It was the Tigers' sixth error of the World Series and a mind-numbing fourth by a Detroit pitcher.

"Kind of a freak thing," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "That's baseball."

Rodney intentionally walked Albert Pujols before striking out the next two batters. But Preston Wilson followed with a single to left that scored Taguchi for the 4-3 lead. The Tigers had an outside chance to get Taguchi at home, but third baseman Brandon Inge cut off the throw and tagged Pujols for the third out.

It wasn't just bad mound defense, though, that has haunted the Tigers during the Fall Classic. Their bats weren't exactly blazing either, at least until last night.

Second baseman Placido Polanco, catcher Ivan Rodriguez and Granderson were a combined 0-for-34 heading into Game 4.

Polanco went hitless, but Granderson had a leadoff double in a two-run third and Rodriguez had three hits, including a RBI single.

Sean Casey had two RBIs, including a bases-empty homer in the second, against St. Louis Cardinal starter Jeff Suppan, who gave up three runs in six innings in the no-decision. Tigers starter Jeremy Bonderman, who hadn't pitched since Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, also held his own, giving up two runs in 5 1/3 innings.

But the Cardinals kept pushing, plugging. Four of their five runs came with two outs. Two were courtesy of Eckstein and another by Detroit's shaky defense.

Ultimately, all that matters is that this Cardinals team, which really, truly looked like an also-ran in August and September, is on the precipice of a championship.

And they got one step closer thanks to Eckstein, their never-surrender poster boy.

"We went through a lot of issues this year, it was a very difficult year in a lot of ways," La Russa said. "The biggest thing, the most consistent thing we had, was heart."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Game 5: Tigers@Cardinals, tonight, 8:27, chs. 45, 5 Starters: Detroit (Verlander 17-9) vs. St. Louis (Weaver 5-4)

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