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Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez pointed to the heavens after shutting out the Cardinals on three hits in a seven-inning stint.
Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez pointed to the heavens after shutting out the Cardinals on three hits in a seven-inning stint. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)

One win to go for the crown

Sox take 3d in row from Cardinals, near first title in 86 years

ST. LOUIS -- It looks as if the planets really are aligned for the Red Sox this time. A lunar eclipse is due to start less than an hour before the Sox and St. Louis Cardinals play the fourth game of the World Series tonight. If skies are clear, the moon over Busch Stadium will be blood red in the late innings.

There has never been a full lunar eclipse in the middle of a World Series game. Red October, indeed.

Continuing their intrepid quest to win a championship for the first time since 1918, the Red Sox beat the Cardinals, 4-1, last night to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the 100th World Series. In what may have been his final start in a Red Sox uniform, Pedro Martinez pitched seven dazzling innings of three-hit, shutout baseball, retiring the final 14 batters he faced. Martinez got the only help he needed in the form of a historic baserunning blunder by Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan -- more proof that the larger forces finally are smiling on Boston's baseball team.

It's time for Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to plan the parade. The 2004 Red Sox have won seven straight playoff games and are within one victory of hardball holy land. No team in World Series history has blown a 3-0 lead. The only inspiration the Cardinals can find is in the Boston dugout: These hearty, hairy Red Sox beat the Yankees four straight times after losing the first three games of the American League Championship Series. So it's really going to happen this time, people. After 86 years, plus one million and 96 tears.

"It is big," said Manny Ramirez, who hit a homer, knocked in two runs, and gunned down a runner at home. "But we learned our lesson against the Yankees. And especially against the Cardinals. They are just such a great team. You've just got to grind it out until you win that last game."

Suppan's gaffe changed Game 3 in every way.

Martinez had won only one of his previous eight starts and appeared to be struggling when Suppan's stupor crushed the Cardinals in the third. With Boston leading, 1-0, on a first-inning Ramirez homer, Suppan led off the inning with a scratch single down the third base line. Edgar Renteria followed with a booming double to right. The Cardinals had runners on second and third with no outs, and four of the best hitters in baseball coming to the plate. Moreover, they'd already put five runners on the basepaths in two-plus innings. They appeared to have Martinez on the ropes.

Sox manager Terry Francona conceded the run and had his infield playing back. When Larry Walker, the next batter, rapped a hard grounder to Mark Bellhorn, the second baseman didn't even look toward home. He fired to first, assuming Suppan would score.

Suppan did not score. He went halfway down the line, then stopped. By the time he got back to third, third baseman Bill Mueller was holding the baseball. The always-loyal St. Louis fans booed when the inning ended.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who managed the Oakland A's when they were swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the 1990 World Series, said, "I think when you're in a championship competition, and the other team is playing well, you can't make mistakes. You can't miss opportunities. It was an easy read. It was a big miss."

According to La Russa, Suppan thought he heard third base coach Jose Oquendo yelling, "No, no," when the coach was yelling, "Go, go." In 1975, Boston's Denny Doyle was gunned down in Game 6 because he thought third base coach Don Zimmer was yelling, "Go, go," when Zim was yelling, "No, no."

Again, this is the reverse of all the bad things that have happened to the Sox.

The Cardinals, hardly cloaking themselves in October glory, tried to keep the media out of the clubhouse after the game.

After the key play, Martinez got into a rhythm. He never allowed another base runner. He was masterful. He made them pop up. He made them ground out. He struck them out. He struck out three of the last four batters he faced, including Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds.

"We got a break," said Martinez. "Once they didn't score in that inning, I said it's up to me now and I got a couple of runs to work with."

Martinez's final pitch, his 98th, was a strike three (swinging) to Reggie Sanders in the bottom of the seventh. Francona was hired after Grady Little was fired for not taking Martinez out of Game 7 against the Yankees last October. There would be no repeat of that mistake. Mike Timlin was summoned to pitch the eighth and got the Cardinals in order. Keith Foulke gave up a homer to Walker in the eighth but caught Scott Rolen looking at a third strike to end it at 11:35 p.m. EST.

Almost too easy.

Martinez, in his inimitable style, used his midnight press conference to try to sell himself to Sox management for next season.

"It's been great," he said. "I hope everybody enjoyed it as much as I did. Even with the struggles up and down during the season, I enjoyed every moment of the season. I enjoyed my career in Boston. I hope I can have a chance to come back with this team. I hope people understand that I wasn't the one that wanted to leave. If they don't get me, it's because they probably didn't try hard enough. I consider Boston my house. I hope everything works out OK."

If it was his last outing for the Red Sox, he certainly left in spectacular fashion.

Meanwhile, folks in Missouri are waiting for the home team to show them something. The vaunted sluggers in the middle of the Cardinal lineup have done almost nothing in the first three games. No St. Louis starting pitcher has finished the fifth inning. And now St. Louis has a baserunning mistake that will live as the evil twin to Enos Slaughter's mad dash from first base that beat the Red Sox in the 1946 World Series.

There's no bad luck for Boston this time. This year, it's the other guys who are making the mistakes.

It could happen tonight or tomorrow, or back at Fenway this weekend. But it is going to happen. The Red Sox are going to win the World Series. The planets are in line.

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