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Archive for Friday, October 27, 2006

Cardinals on verge of title

Comeback victory gives St. Louis chance to win series at home

October 27, 2006

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— With some help from a soggy field and two big hits by little David Eckstein, the St. Louis Cardinals took control of the World Series with a wild comeback victory.

Eckstein's tiebreaking double glanced off the glove of a diving Craig Monroe in left field in the eighth inning, and the Cardinals capitalized on Detroit's sloppy defense for a 5-4 victory Thursday night in Game 4.

"He's the toughest guy I've ever seen in a uniform," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said, praising his scrappy shortstop.

After Curtis Granderson slipped in center field on a key play trying for an earlier ball hit by Eckstein, rekindling memories of Curt Flood in the 1968 Series between these teams, St. Louis took a 3-1 lead to move within one win of its first championship in 24 years.

Jeff Weaver can wrap it up tonight at Busch Stadium when he pitches against rookie Justin Verlander. Each lost his first start in this Series.

"The fans here are unbelievable. They come out every single night supporting us, and it would be a real honor to do something for them," Eckstein said.

One word of caution, Cardinals rooters: St. Louis had a 3-1 lead in '68, too, before Detroit rallied to win behind lefty Mickey Lolich.

The decisive hit that time came when Flood, a Gold Glove center fielder, slipped on Jim Northrup's two-out, two-run triple off Cardinals ace Bob Gibson to break a scoreless tie in the seventh inning of Game 7 - right across the street, where the old Busch Stadium stood.

This time, the 5-foot-7 Eckstein hit three doubles and a single as St. Louis overcame an early 3-0 deficit to close in on its 10th World Series title. The last team to squander a 3-1 Series lead, however, was the 1985 Cardinals against Kansas City.

After a rainout Wednesday night, only the second World Series washout in 20 years, showers were expected again Thursday. But the heavy stuff stayed away on a 53-degree night, and much of the back-and-forth game was played in a light mist that obscured the Gateway Arch beyond center field.

The mist got heavier in the sixth, however, and the Tigers began to struggle with the elements.

With St. Louis trailing 3-2 in the seventh, Eckstein hit a drive to right-center that Granderson appeared to have in his sights before he slipped to the slick turf, kicking up a huge divot. The ball fell for an easy double.

"If I had stayed up, I catch it easily," Granderson said. "It wasn't too much of a cut. As soon as I planted, it went underneath me.

"It wasn't just wet," he added. "It was wet and soft."

Pinch-hitter So Taguchi dropped down a sacrifice bunt, and reliever Fernando Rodney rushed an off-balance throw over the head of Placido Polanco covering at first base, allowing Eckstein to score the tying run.

It was the fourth error by a Tigers pitcher in four games, a record for one pitching staff in the World Series.

"Obviously, it was a little bit of a freak inning," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "It's not our best fielding in the world, but that's baseball."

After an intentional walk to Albert Pujols and two strikeouts, Preston Wilson singled to left against Rodney to give St. Louis a 4-3 lead.

But Ivan Rodriguez opened the eighth with a double and Brandon Inge tied it with a double off rookie closer Adam Wainwright, who avoided further damage by striking out pinch-hitter Alexis Gomez and Granderson.

That set the stage for St. Louis' final rally. Yadier Molina drew a leadoff walk from Joel Zumaya before Aaron Miles beat out a potential double-play ball.

Miles moved up when strike three to Juan Encarnacion got past Rodriguez for a wild pitch, and Eckstein hit a drive to left-center.

Monroe sprinted to his left and laid out with a desperate dive, but the ball ticked off the tip of his glove. The left fielder lay prone on the grass as Miles scored the go-ahead run.

"Facing Zumaya, you want to make sure you don't try to overswing," Eckstein said. "I got a fastball and was able to get on top just enough, just barely out of the reach of Craig Monroe, who almost made one heck of a catch."

Wainwright set down Detroit in order in the ninth to the delight of the red-clad crowd.

With NL championship series MVP Jeff Suppan on the mound for St. Louis, one sign read: Cold Night. Hot Supp.

Suppan allowed three runs in six innings.

The right-hander, sporting his full, dark beard, was quite a contrast to the boyish-looking Jeremy Bonderman, who made his Series debut for Detroit only two days shy of his 24th birthday.

Making his first start in 12 days, Bonderman was staked to a three-run lead and was visibly steamed when he was pulled after 5 1-3 innings with the score 3-2. He slammed his glove and hat on the bench, knocking over a full cup, and kicked the ground.

But Rodney preserved the lead - for one inning, at least - when he struck out Miles and pinch-hitter John Rodriguez with runners at the corners.

Rodney whiffed Rodriguez with a 97 mph fastball as catcher Ivan Rodriguez popped out of his crouch and pumped his fist.

In the second, Sean Casey golfed a 1-0 pitch into the Cardinals' bullpen in right field for his first career postseason home run. It also was the first homer off Suppan this postseason. Rodriguez then grounded a single to right, ending an 0-for-23 slump since Game 1 of the ALCS.

Granderson doubled to start the third, his first hit in 15 World Series at-bats, and scored on Casey's two-out single. Rodriguez followed with an RBI single, making it 3-0.

But La Russa stayed aggressive, calling for a hit-and-run with Suppan batting in the third. Suppan swung through a strike, but Miles stole second against Rodriguez, an 11-time Gold Glove winner who led major league catchers by throwing out 46 percent of attempted basestealers this season.

The gamble paid off when Eckstein hit a two-out double over a leaping Carlos Guillen at shortstop. La Russa yelled "Yeah!" and did a little spin in the corner of the dugout.

Scott Rolen strained for a one-out double in the fourth, diving headfirst into second and clutching the outside of the bag with a firm-fingered grip after Monroe got twisted around on a slow retrieval of the ball.

With two outs, Molina hit an RBI double past a diving Inge at third, cutting it to 3-2.

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