Man, the Cardinals could have used some rain.

Instead, they got Pedro Martinez, who showed up with 1984 hair and 1999 stuff to push the 2004 season to the brink. Martinez, who’d thrown just one inning since last Monday, tossed seven shutout innings against the best offense in the National League this year, showing once again that he’s as good as ever given ample recovery time.

Martinez was aided by Manny Ramirez, who had a monster home run, an RBI single and a baserunner kill that ended a first-inning rally.

Martinez and Ramirez have two of the legacy contracts for the previous CBA era, and made a combined $37.9 million in 2004. You think anyone in Boston is concerned about that this morning? The players could move the decimal point to the right and probably find a taker.

What’s amazing is how close this game was to going the other way. Twice in the first three innings, the Cardinals had rallies going, only to see runners thrown out on the bases to end the drama. In the first, the Cards had loaded the bases against Martinez with one out, drawing two walks wrapped around an infield single. Jim Edmonds flied to short left field, and Larry Walker, no doubt familiar with the work of Ramirez, elected to tag up on the play. He was out by five feet, rescuing Martinez from the frame.

What was funny about the play is that Ramirez actually made a mistake, even in throwing out the runner. Albert Pujols appeared to lose track of the number of outs, and was about 2/3 of the way to third base when Ramirez caught the ball. The shorter throw to second base would have yielded an easy out.

The bigger play, maybe the one on which this World Series hinges, came in the third. Jeff Suppan led off with an infield single, and Edgar Renteria one-hopped the wall in right field for a double to give the Cards second and third with no one out and their best hitters coming up. A tied game seemed a given, and a lead likely. The Sox played their infield back, conceding the tying run with Walker at the plate.

Walker grounded to second, where Mark Bellhorn, positioned almost on the outfield grass, made the routine play. Suppan, however, failed to rush home, even through the Sox were conceding the run, and even though the ball was hit nearly to the outfield. He hesitated, then started down the line, but by that time, David Ortiz had the ball. Ortiz, whose defensive skill was the subject of much of the buildup to the game, fired over to Bill Mueller for the tag on Suppan.

It was a horrible baserunning play, only marginally excusable for the fact that Suppan is a pitcher. If you missed the chance to run home–really, he could have jogged home–that’s one thing, but to compound the mistake by getting caught off the bag, indecisive, and provide the Red Sox with a desperately needed baserunner kill was an egregious gaffe.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Suppan’s play cost the Cardinals the game. However, given the break, Martinez did not allow another baserunner before leaving after seven innings, and only Walker’s one-out home run in the ninth kept the Cardinals from making 21 straight outs after Renteria’s double. You only get so many chances against a very good pitcher; the Cardinals got two, squandered them, and will now effectively play out the string.

Up 3-0, the Sox find themselves in the same position their nemeses were in nine days ago. The difference now, of course, is that no one can say, “never” anymore, and I think that affects how we look at the situation. Even though the likelihood of a team overcoming a 3-0 deficit isn’t any different than it was last week, we view it differently because it actually happened. Maybe that’s a fallacy, I don’t know, but I certainly don’t think you’ll see anyone write off the Cardinals with quite the same fervor as the Sox were being buried after Game 3 of the ALCS.

The Sox can do a few things that would mark their title as being particularly special in baseball history. They’ve tied the record for longest winning streak in one postsesaon at seven (1995 Atlanta Braves, 1976 Cincinnati Reds), and would set the record with a win tonight. They have a chance to be just the third team to go through the World Series without ever trailing, following the 1989 A’s and the 1963 Dodgers.

Will those things happen? Perhaps, although I have to say that I would be shocked to see the Cardinals go down in four games. Tonight’s matchup is run-friendly; Jason Marquis hasn’t pitched well in just over a month, since he threw seven good innings in, of all places, Denver. Derek Lowe made one passable and one excellent start in the ALCS, after a season in which he was beaten like a drum. It’s anyone’s guess which version of Lowe will show up tonight, just as it was nearly all season long.

These two teams scored 20 runs in Game One, then just 12 over the next two games. Tonight’s game will look more like Saturday’s; I’d be surprised if both starters made it through the fifth, and not at all if neither did so.

As a baseball fan, I want one more day. I’m not ready for the winter just yet.

  • Is anyone else starting to be surprised when Jim Edmonds doesn’t get to a ball? Orlando Cabrera hit two balls in the left-center gap last night; the first looked like a double off the bat, and ended up in Edmonds’ glove. When Cabrera hit the second, my thought process went, “doub–…no, wait, Edmonds, out…oh, wow, double.” I was actually expecting him to catch it, as I’ve begun to expect from every ball hit in his general direction.

    Usually, teams with good defensive reputations get those by being sure-handed, by not making errors, and are overrated for this particular skill. Range, the ability to turn hits into outs, is much more valuable. The Cardinals as a team do this very well, and individually, have three of the most impressive defensive players in baseball in Edmonds, Renteria and Scott Rolen. No game has gone by in which one of them hasn’t made an excellent play, and in most games, two or three of them have shown.

  • I think MLB was fortunate that no one got hurt last night. The outfield was only borderline playable, and it was evident that the fielders were being careful. Trot Nixon actually lost his footing in chasing Renteria’s double, while Walker, playing a ball in the same area a bit later, was clearly being timid in his pursuit. They’re men, they get paid to play, but as I wrote yesterday, baseball wasn’t designed to be played in adverse conditions, no matter how well the game schedule fits the TV schedule.
  • There are some television moments that just leave you sitting in awe. Late in last night’s game, Fox cut to a shot of Chris Myers (who, I swear, was once one of the high-caliber guys at ESPN) conducting an interview with “Leon,” a fictional character in Budweiser commercials.

    My inbox lit up after that “interview,” and I can’t even describe to you the level of astonishment and disgust. Just so I’m clear…MLB doesn’t want to show celebrations with alcohol in clubhouses, but is OK with its broadcast partner conducting interviews with fake people who are used to sell beer IN THE MIDDLE OF AN INNING?

    Hey, Chris, your dignity called. It’s not coming back.

  • Has Larry Walker always had this kind of opposite-field power? After last night’s home run off of Keith Foulke, he’s now hit at least two impressive home runs to left-center field. The other one I remember was a bomb at Minute Maid Park.

    Walker is virtually impossible to evaluate because of the years he spent in Coors Field, but we certainly should try and get a handle on him. He’s the second-best player in Rockies history, and he had–continues to have–a substantial career at sea level. Consider it practice for Todd Helton‘s Hall of Fame candidacy.

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