SLIPPING AWAY

ST. LOUIS – This is what the brink looks like. It looks like a ball flying over your head and you chase it running backward and your legs go out from under you, like someone pulled the tablecloth, down you go, down in wet grass, and you scramble to your feet but the ball is coming down, too late, too late, a sure out has turned into a double. Your uniform is wet. Your face is red.

This is what the brink looks like. A simple bunt, coming your way, and you run off the mound, and you pick it up, you throw to first base, a simple out – isn’t it simple? – but you throw too high, it soars over the fielder’s head, a run comes in, the game is tied. Your heart is racing. Your face is red.

This is what the brink looks like. A two-out line shot that comes flying your way, and you dig and you dig and you leap and the ball hits your glove – and then bounces off the webbing. You fall to the ground. The winning run scores. You are wet. You are angry. The whole stadium is red.

This is what the brink looks like – because the Tigers are on it now. A game they had and gave away. A slip. A bad throw. A wild pitch. Another error on another Tigers pitcher on a staff that in four games has committed more errors than any pitching staff in World Series history.

“Basically, they’ve played good enough to be 3-1,” Jim Leyland said of the Cardinals, after his Tigers dropped this heartbreaker, 5-4, “and we’re played good enough to be 1-3.”

And so, after seven months, 174 games, and a rain day that drove them all nearly batty, the Tigers are one defeat away from this whole wonderful dream ending in a jolt and a cold sweat. They have to win three straight to take this thing now.

And you know what hurts the most? They will look back this morning on the plays they made – not the ones Cardinals made – that put them in this position.

It will hurt. It will haunt. It is what the precipice feels like.

Brink job.

Doomed by Doogie Howser

What a crushing game Thursday night. Under a cold mist that erased the tops of buildings and made the centerfield lights seem like beacons for lost ships, the Tigers thought they’d found their way out of the storm, only, like George Clooney in that ill-fated movie, to realize it was a false ray of light, the plague would continue, bad mistakes, opportune hitting by St. Louis, down goes the ship.

A shame, for here, finally, after three games that seemed almost predetermined, was a night that was truly up for grabs. The Tigers led. The Cards climbed back. The Cards tied. The Cards led. The Tigers tied. They could have gone ahead.

Instead, mistakes, miscues, nerves, the kind of stuff that there is no margin for in a game of this magnitude.

“We’ve done a few things … to either give them a run or give them some extra chances,” Leyland said, “and they’re obviously a good enough team to take advantage of those.”

Here were the worst of them Thursday night: Curtis Granderson in centerfield. He was the one who slipped. It was the seventh inning, David Eckstein at the plate, leading off. Wasn’t it just a blink ago that Eckstein, who looks like he is 12 years old, was the sure out in the Cardinals’ lineup?

Not anymore. The Doogie Howser of St. Louis figured in several of the key moments, getting four hits on the night – four hits for David Eckstein? – none more aggravating to Tigers fans that that shot he hit that Granderson should have caught.

But the young centerfielder lost his footing, Eckstein was on second. Had he not been on, maybe what happened next wouldn’t have mattered. But Fernando Rodney took a bunt from So Taguchi, an easy play, a sure out, but Rodney threw it over the head of Placido Polanco, covering first base. Eckstein, the runner – who never should have been on base – came around to score.

That tied it up.

A few batters later, Taguchi – who shouldn’t have been on base – scored the go-ahead run on a Preston Wilson single. From a 3-0 lead to a 4-3 deficit.

What is it with pitchers on this Tigers team? Since when did they suddenly lose the ability to make the simplest throws? Is it nerves? Youth? Something contagious?

Maybe it’s all three. In the eight inning, Joel Zumaya – already with enough embarrassment on his resume in this Series – threw a wild third strike that allowed Aaron Miles to move up to second base. And because he got second base – a base he never should have had – he was able to score on Eckstein’s last hit of the night, a double that sealed the victory, that sharp line drive that caromed off the edge of Craig Monroe’s glove.

“It’s nice,” Eckstein said of his good fortune at the Tigers’ expense, “to have a little luck involved.”

Leyland had a different take on it.

“That’s baseball,” he said.

He was not happy when he said it.

Brink job.

Too many bats still silent

None of which means this is impossible. Come on. After the Boston Red Sox, nobody says impossible anymore. Three straight victories – two of which would be in Comerica Park – is nothing the Tigers haven’t done against the Yankees and the Athletics in the previous series.

So it’s possible. It’s not probable. Right now, the Cardinals are playing the game a bit better than the Tigers. They are making the most of their chances. They are taking that base that leads to a run. They are making the cutoff throw that holds a runner one base shy. They are getting out of jams when the Tigers threaten, dampening the fires before they spread.

And they are not making mistakes. They are looking like – and perhaps we didn’t make enough of this when everyone was predicting the Tigers before this Series – like a team that has been here before, just two years ago. They don’t seem fazed by the magnitude of it. They seem older. More seasoned.

They are.

The Tigers, meanwhile, should they lose this World Series, will look back to a blown throw here, a blown throw there, a slip, a strikeout, too many men left on base, too many sluggers coming up empty. Ironically, two of their formerly goose-egged hitters came alive Thursday night, Pudge Rodriguez (3-for-4, a double, an RBI, a run scored) and Granderson (1-for-5, a double, a run scored.) But Magglio Ordonez (0-for-5) has lost his hero’s halo; he is disappearing when the Tigers need RBIs the most. And Polanco has lost his magic touch. The MVP of the American League Championship Series hasn’t gotten a hit in this World Series.

Detroit is not hitting well enough to overcome its mistakes. To be honest, they’d have to be hitting like .500 to overcome all those mistakes.

And they may have only one more chance.

Brink job. This is how it feels, you’re out on that edge, looking down at the deep. Earlier in the day, they had said this game would be rained out, that the weather would be worse Thursday than it had been Wednesday. But that wasn’t true. Because weather changes.

Can fortunes?

Because that may be the Tigers’ only hope.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.

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