ST. LOUIS — The tension was so thick you could almost feel the players sweat. And it was damn cold outside. But Vince Coleman was darting back and forth off third base, trying to break the pitcher’s concentration. And Ozzie Smith was nibbling off second, checking over his shoulder, wary of a pick-off. And Dan Driessen held a long lead off first, body bent, hands on his thighs. Bases loaded. Hands full. The irresistible force, all these St. Louis base runners, against the immovable object, Bert Blyleven, Minnesota’s guardian, standing on the mound. Here was perhaps the most critical face-off in this flip- flop World Series. Two outs. Bottom of the sixth. Young Curt Ford at the plate. The Twins and Cards were finally eye-to-eye. Both teams had won two games. Both had chalked up blowout victories. And both had scored absolutely nothing in this Game 5, zeroes across the board, and they were running out of innings.

Ball one. Ball two. Strike one. Suddenly, the game was screeching to a heavy-footed pace. A frame at a time. Instead of a few seconds, each pitch seemed to take a minute. The air inside Busch Stadium was drying up. Can’t breathe. Watch the count. Watch the base runners. Watch the signs. It was like one of those melodramatic movies where the key scene is run in slow motion to a heartbeat synthesizer.

“This . . . is . . . the . . . mo . . . ment . . . ” it seems to remind you.

Ford swung. The ball cracked up the middle, past second base and into the outfield. Cardinals were in motion everywhere. The crowd lept to its feet in a collective roar.

The moment was over.

And so, to be honest, was the game.

Cards will take anything

Twins blink. Cardinals win. They have moved within a victory of this World Series crown with an anorexic lineup and a reliance on speed that rivals only Carl Lewis and certain rock drummers. The Cardinals would score four runs when Game 5 was history (final score 4-2), and they’d do it with just one hit out of the infield. Steal a base. Take a walk. Take a balk. Force an error. Steal a few more bases. Whatever it takes. They’ll take whatever.

“This is the way we’ve been winning all year,” said shortstop Smith, who beat out a bunt for the second hit in that sixth inning. Beat out a bunt? Sure. After Coleman beat out a bad-hop grounder to first. Scratch and claw. Inch by inch. Trying to beat these Cardinals when they get on base is like trying to kill cockroaches in your sink. It looks easy. But the suckers are fast.

“There are no teams like them in the American League,” conceded Kent Hrbek, the Twins first baseman, in the Minnesota clubhouse after the loss. “We’re not used to defensing a team like this. They run an awful lot. You have to concentrate full time on that.”

Perhaps that explains why the image that endures for the Twins this morning is a baseball squiggling out of a hand, or bouncing off a shin, or ricocheting out of a glove — while St. Louis base runners advance. Three times in that fateful sixth inning, balls were bobbled (only one was ruled an outright error) and runners were safe. We all know speed kills. Sometimes, when it distracts it is just as deadly.

“Do you think you had them worrying when you were on base?” someone asked Coleman, who twice stole third on a night when the Cardinals stole five bases, tying a World Series record.

“I don’t know if they were worried,” he said, with a small grin, “but I know we were on base.”

Is there a difference?

They’re set for the kill

So the Cardinals sweep at home. Their speed was matched by excellent pitching (Danny Cox, Ken Dayley, Todd Worrell) that enabled them to survive a comeback attempt by the Twins in the eighth. And now the Series switches back to the crazy Metrodome — the only place where a team down 3-2 in a series may still have an advantage.

But wait. A moment for what we saw here by this Cardinals team. Theirs is no-fat, clean-the-bone baseball. Airtight defense. Scratch and claw offense
(forget Game 4, it was a fluke). If they wind up champions, they will have pulled off a remarkable achievement considering the absence of Jack Clark and Terry Pendleton.

But that is still to come. They will go for the kill in Game 6; it’s their best shot. Les Straker will pitch for the Twins, the ever-tough John Tudor for St. Louis. Besides, whatever bone-rattling pandemonium will exist in the Metrodome Saturday will be party noise compared to a Game 7. Someone asked Hrbek if returning to the ‘Dome would make a difference. “Yeah,” he laughed grimly, “we can’t lose now.”

If ever a sentence had two meanings.

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