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Saturday, October 12
Cards win, but Tom Emanski covers his eyes

By Jayson Stark

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was the most important baseball game the St. Louis Cardinals have won all year. So what was the word their manager found to describe it?

Dramatic? Inspiring? Pivotal?

Uh, guess again. The word Tony La Russa used was -- what else? -- "mess."

To err is human
Game 3 of the NLCS looked more like the Bad News Bears than a playoff game. A list of the miscues in the field:

1. Shortstop Edgar Renteria boots Kenny Lofton's routine groundball leading off the bottom of the first.

2. With two on and two outs, Benito Santiago hits another rountine grounder to Renteria, who flips to second baseman Fernando Vina ... who wasn't covering second base. Bases loaded.

3. Reggie Sanders then flies to shallow center. Vina, perhaps trying to make up for his mental error on the last play, goes way out to make the play, even though Jim Edmonds was calling for the ball. Vina leaps ... and Edmonds makes the catch.

4. In the bottom of the second, after J.T. Snow and David Bell singled, pitcher Russ Ortiz squares to sacrifice. He bunts down the third-base line, but pitcher Chuck Finley never moves off the mound. First baseman Tino Martinez was left to make the play, but everybody is safe.

5. Same inning, with two outs and the bases loaded, Barry Bonds flies to right field. Vina and right fielder J.D. Drew collide on the catch, but Drew holds on.

6. Finley strikes out leading off the third, but reaches first when the pitch goes all the way to the backstop.

7. Vina, the next batter, lines to right-center. Lofton takes a bad route to the ball and it goes off his glove for a double.

8. In the Giants' half of the seventh, with two runners on, Santiago hits a slow roller back to the mound, but the easy grounder goes under the glove of pitcher Dave Veres for an infield single (the Cardinals escaped the jam, anyway).

Now if you were going to pick a day to make a mess of yourselves, Game 3 of the National League Championship Series would not be the day you'd pick. Especially if you'd just lost the first two games of that series. At home.

But crazy stuff happens in October. And the Cardinals' tightrope-walking 5-4 win over the Giants at Pac Bell Park on Saturday was about as crazy and nerve-wracking and dramatic as series-saving baseball games get.

There are ways to go about winning games this huge. But the way the Cardinals went about it Saturday isn't one that would be recommended by Tom Emanski, the surgeon general or even the Cardinals themselves.

"If somebody had seen us for the first time today, they'd have said, 'That's a big-league team?'" laughed Cardinals reliever Dave Veres after his team had narrowed the Giants' lead in this series to 2 games to 1. "They'd have said, 'How'd these guys ever make the playoffs?' But somehow, we persevered."

Perseverance, of course, is the Cardinals' middle name. They must have majored in perseverance. Maybe, after all the practice they've gotten this year, they just enjoy persevering. Because they sure gave themselves plenty of opportunities to practice it on this long, wild afternoon.

A routine groundball clanked off Edgar Renteria's glove. Fernando Vina forgot to cover second base on a force play.

Vina tried decapitating Jim Edmonds on a pop-up to short center field. Chuck Finley brainlocked and decided to let the first baseman field a bunt down the third-base line.

And that was just in the first two innings.

"After those first couple of innings," said closer Jason Isringhausen, "it looked like we didn't know what we were doing. We were throwing to empty bases. Vina was trying to catch every pop-up on the field. That was unbelievable. Jimmy (Edmonds) finally had to tell him, 'Look, I'll take everything on the grass. You take everything on the dirt.' But after that, we calmed down. Fortunately."

What was amazing, though, was not that they calmed down. What was amazing was that, after all that pandemonium, they weren't losing by 12 runs.

Seven of the Giants' first 12 hitters reached base in this game, by some means or another. And incredibly, their lead was only 1-0.

Thanks to Chuck Finley.

As a series of Saturday Night Live baseball sketches erupted all around him, it was left to Finley to pitch himself out of these misadventures. But he wriggled his way out of bases-loaded nightmares in the first and second innings. In the second, he even won a two-out duel with Barry Bonds. And because he did, this series may never be the same.

"Sometimes during the course of a game, you have to make pitches in the fifth and sixth inning to save a game," Finley said. "Today, I had to make those pitches in the first and second inning. One or two bad pitches there, and we could have been four or five runs down instead of one."

Instead, the Cardinals were still breathing. And if they go on to win this series, they'll remember trotting off the field after the second inning -- with only one run on the board -- as the moment that changed the series.

"That was their chance to really put us away," Isringhausen said. "And they didn't do it. These series are all about momentum. And that's when the momentum started going our way."

As they came to bat in the third inning, the Cardinals hadn't led any game of this series at any point, even for 30 seconds. But they immediately kicked off a game-turning two-run rally the way many teams do this time of year:

With the old Pitcher Strikes Out But Reaches First On A Wild Pitch play.

Yes, it was Chuck Finley's whiff that started it all. And once he made it to first base, the Cardinals turned it into two runs on a Vina double that ticked off Kenny Lofton's glove, a sacrifice fly and a run-scoring groundball.

In retrospect, it was the biggest missed third strike in a postseason game since Mickey Owen forgot to catch what should have been the last out of Game 4 of the 1941 World Series.

Asked what he knew about Mickey Owen, Finley said: "Not a thing." But he did chuckle: "After I scored, Tony said, 'That was just what we wanted you to do.'"

OK, maybe not. But the Cardinals then tacked on two more runs on solo homers by Mike Matheny (who hadn't hit one since April 26) and Jim Edmonds. And as they headed into the bottom of the fifth, they held what almost looked like a safe 4-1 lead.

But Barry Bonds wiped that out faster than you could say, "McCovey Cove" -- with a game-tying three-run homer that was fielded by a guy paddling a kayak. And the Giants seemed poised to take back control of the series.

For about a minute and a half, anyway.

Then Eli Marrero hit the second pitch of the next half-inning into the auxiliary press box in left, off Jay Witasick. And the Cardinals would spend the next four innings emptying their bullpen trying to hang onto that 5-4 lead.

The Giants had three more rallies in them, too. But with the bases loaded in the seventh, Veres struck out the anti-Reggie Jackson, Reggie Sanders (0-for-13 in this series, 4-for-46 lifetime in three visits to the LCS). Then Steve Kline marched in and got J.T. Snow to ground out.

In the eighth, Kenny Lofton and Rich Aurilia left the tying run on second against Kline and Rick White. And finally, Isringhausen issued the mandatory intentionally unintentional walk to Bonds in the ninth, before mowing down Benito Santiago and Sanders to end it.

So the Cardinals won a game they had to win -- because "let's face it," said Vina. "To come back from three games down is rough." But afterward, they sounded like a bunch of guys who had just been forced to swim across McCovey Cove during an earthquake.

"The intensity of these games is incredible," said Finley, who finally won his first postseason game 17 years, 467 starts and 200 regular-season wins into his career. "The electricity is unbelievable. I was going crazy having to sit there and watch it. I'd rather be out there than have to watch it."

"It's draining," said Matheny. "But that's what I knew it would be like. I guess that's the way playoff baseball has to be. Nobody said it was going to be easy."

Well, it was anything but easy. But for some reason, they had no desire to trade that win for extra style points. At 2-1, they're back in this series. Somehow.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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