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Cardinals have short way to go

Times Staff Writer

A World Series spent a few inches off the gloves of the Detroit Tigers is within the reach of the St. Louis Cardinals.

On a Thursday night in which clouds gathered but did not open up, the Cardinals scored four two-out runs, played off three doubles from leadoff hitter David Eckstein, and defeated the Tigers, 5-4, at Busch Stadium. They lead the best-of-seven series, three games to one.

Twenty-four years since their last World Series title, and 38 years since a similar World Series advantage disappeared against the Tigers, the Cardinals are a game from turning their 83-win regular season into the franchise’s 10th championship.

Game 5 is here tonight.

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“We’re just close,” Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said.

While the Cardinals in general, and Eckstein, who had four hits in all, in particular, were most forceful in the game’s critical moments, the Tigers again shaped some of those moments with imprecise play and wretched luck.

Another pitcher -- Fernando Rodney this time -- paused during an otherwise decent outing to commit an error, leading to two Cardinals runs, both unearned, in the seventh inning. An outfielder -- Curtis Granderson -- began the inning by gifting Eckstein his second double, slipping and falling and throwing a divot on a fly ball to center field. He got up, but the ball dropped 10 feet away.

And then Eckstein muscled up with two out and the score tied, 4-4, in the eighth inning, Aaron Miles at second base because of a wild pitch, the crowd leaning desperately with every pitch from Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya, whose fastballs routinely reach 100 mph.

Eckstein hit a fastball on a hard line to left-center field. Left fielder Craig Monroe darted to his left, lunged frantically, and felt the ball graze the top of his glove. It went for another Eckstein double, and Miles scored.

“I was hoping it was going to find a little bit of dirt -- grass -- out there,” Eckstein said. “But the ball was kind of straightening out, and it kept going, and it just reminded me, I played with a guy named Darin Erstad that made a catch like that at Yankee Stadium.”

Except Monroe’s wasn’t a catch. And the Tigers didn’t win. And the Cardinals are very, very close.

Monroe didn’t make the catch because, in part, Eckstein is a little guy, so he played him shallow, becoming the millionth man to underestimate him by just those few inches.

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“As long as they land,” Eckstein said with a grin.

And, well, he said, “Yeah, I do hit a lot of balls that are short. But I was fortunate enough tonight this one got just out of his reach.”

An inning before, with the score tied, 3-3, Preston Wilson, who looks like a professional athlete, had driven in a run with a two-out single against Rodney.

But, Eckstein, he’s different. He had an infield single in the first inning. An RBI double to start the Cardinals’ offense in the third inning. Then the doubles in the seventh, when he scored the Cardinals’ third run, and the game-winning double in the eighth.

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“He did everything you can just to annoy them to the bitter end,” Wilson said of Eckstein. “It’s amazing he gets that much out of his ability. But he constantly does it.”

The Cardinals too seemed to have played beyond their capabilities. They were underdogs against the San Diego Padres, the New York Mets and then the Tigers, and now they are a victory from a parade.

They gave the ball to Jeff Suppan to start, and he pitched six so-so innings, but soundly enough to have the Cardinals stalk the Tigers’ 3-0 lead. Adam Wainwright, closing in place of the injured Jason Isringhausen, got the final five outs, the first two with the potential go-ahead run at second base (where he put it), and the last three through the heart of the Tigers’ order.

“We know we’re close,” Wilson said. “You can’t deny we’re close.”

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Partly, they have the Tigers to thank.

Their pitchers have committed four errors, their team a total of six. Ivan Rodriguez had his bat come back, singling twice and doubling. And Sean Casey had three hits, including a solo home run in the second.

But their defense has hurt them, and the Cardinals’ hitters have made the better swings and better decisions for the better part of a week. Perhaps the Tigers have idleness to blame -- they played for only the fourth time in 12 days.

“We’ve got to win three in a row,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. “And that pretty much puts it pretty simple. Are we capable of doing that? Absolutely. Are we in a good position? Absolutely not. So, I think you just go out and remind the team all the time that if you win the next game in the postseason, you keep playing.... We win, we keep playing. If we don’t, we don’t.”

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tim.brown@latimes.com


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