Fine line further distances Tigers from title

ST. LOUIS -- This was the line between winning and losing on a drizzly and momentous night in October:

A fateful slip on a patch of wet grass. A routine throw to first base that suddenly wasn't so routine. A floating line drive hanging in the night, floating a fraction of an inch too high and too wide for an outfielder's glove to hold it.

This was the line that defined Game 4 of the 2006 World Series.

The line that froze "Cardinals 5, Tigers 4" into the scorebooks Thursday, stuck there for eternity.

The line that left 46,000 Cardinals fans in a state of serious delirium, not wanting to leave a ballpark that had delivered this much euphoria.

The line that left the Detroit Tigers standing at their lockers in a near-silent clubhouse, picking apart plays that should have been made, could have been made, no doubt would have been made on a perfect night and dry blades of grass.

This was the line between where the World Series stands now -- the Cardinals leading, three games to one -- and the dead-even 2-2 tie that easily might have been.

A slip by Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson. A wild throw by reliever Fernando Rodney. A double by David Eckstein that so easily could have landed in the glove of left fielder Craig Monroe.

This was the line -- the line that often separates the men who get to ride the parade floats from the men who close their eyes on a quiet winter's night and try to make those what-if nightmares fade away.

"It's a game of inches, and you saw it firsthand tonight," said Granderson. "Add a half-inch to Craig Monroe's glove and he makes that play. If I plant my feet and keep my feet underneath me a little bit more, go ahead and stay up, I make that play routinely. Who knows what ends up happening? You never know."

Yes, you never do know. And you never will know. And that is what makes these October baseball games the life-defining events they are.

When they are over, no one bludgeons the winners with the specter of what easily could have happened. No one can rescue the losers from wondering forever what might have been.

In the record books, there will be no asterisks, no footnotes, no alibis. The winning team in the World Series is listed on one side of the page. The losing team is listed on the other side of the page.

It may only have been an inch here or quirk there that separated them. But in the annals of history, they stand on opposite sides of the sports world's largest canyon. And they never change places.

So that's the context of these events that unfolded Thursday night at Busch Stadium. Lives, reputations, careers -- all shaped by a slip of the feet, a throw that sailed all wrong, a glove an inch too short.

The Slip
Bottom of the seventh inning. Tigers leading, 3-2. David Eckstein's leadoff fly ball soaring gently toward Curtis Granderson in right-center field.

"It's the first out of the inning," said Rodney, the pitcher who had induced that fly ball. "When they give it to you, you've got to take it."

Granderson drifted toward the spot where he knew this ball was heading. Next thing he knew, he was on his back, wondering what he was doing there.

"It just happened out of nowhere," he said. "If I don't go down, I catch that ball. I catch it easy."

He described the footing all night as having been "good, really good." He hadn't been slipping, hadn't been sliding. He was wearing a practically new pair of shoes with metal spikes, just a couple of weeks old.

He simply happened to step just the wrong way in just the wrong spot. So he didn't merely slip. He tore a patch of turf right out of the ground beneath him.

"When I went to plant my foot to get my legs underneath me and just go ahead and slow myself down, that's when my foot went out from underneath me and I ended up losing my balance," he said. "And by the time I got up, the ball was [too far away to catch], because I was falling instead of running."

So the baseball plopped safely to Earth. Eckstein had a leadoff double. A nervous ballpark had erupted back to life. And people who could remember back far enough were recalling another World Series game in St. Louis, 38 years earlier.

That time, it was the Cardinals who were on the wrong end of a fateful slip. That time, Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood had fallen in very similar fashion while chasing a fly ball hit by a Tiger (Jim Northrup). And it turned out that that World Series was never the same.

"I was nowhere near even being born then," said Granderson, whose debut on the planet was still almost 13 years away. "I try my best to watch ESPN Classic. And I haven't seen anything about it. So you would have to refresh me on it."

A veteran sportswriter then gave him that refresher course. Granderson even managed to smile.

"History repeats itself," he said. "That's part of it."

In the moment, Granderson wasn't willing to think about what this play might have meant. He was still in the middle of a World Series, still thinking there was time to win it.

But down the hallway, Cardinals outfielder Preston Wilson had already begun to contemplate the meaning of all this. And he was actually feeling sorry for the man on the wrong end of it.

"That's how this game goes," said Cardinals outfielder Preston Wilson. "I've been on the other side of being in the outfield and slipping. You can do everything right out there, and the ground just comes out from under your feet. And when it happens, it's a very helpless feeling."

But this inning, this game, was still a long ways from being over. And the game of inches had only begun to unfold.

The Throw
With the potential tying run on second, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa sent So Taguchi up to pinch-hit for Chris Duncan. Or, more literally, to pinch-bunt.

Taguchi dropped one down the first-base line. Rodney broke right to the ball, scooped it up and knew he should take the out at first he'd just been handed.

But never had a 50-foot throw felt so challenging.

"I don't like to throw a ball [from that distance] too hard at anyone," Rodney said. "So I threw the ball soft. And it went away."

Yeah, it went away, all right. It went away over the head of Placido Polanco, who was covering the bag. By the time Magglio Ordonez ran the ball down, the game was tied at 3, Taguchi was on second, and there was still nobody out.

It was the fourth straight game in which a Tigers pitcher had made an error -- the fourth. No team had ever done anything like that in any World Series in history. No team had even done that in any four-game stretch in the regular season in three years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

But it has happened to the Tigers. And it may very well haunt them for the rest of time.

As Rodney spoke about this play later, his eyes were moist. The disappointment oozed out of his voice. But at the time, he said, he was still calm, still cool. He had no choice, of course.

"You have to keep your head up," he said, "and go get the next hitter."

He did, in fact, get the next hitter, striking out Jim Edmonds on a diving 2-2 changeup. One out. Then he struck out Scott Rolen with another untouchable changeup. Two outs. That made four strikeouts Rodney had racked up with runners in scoring position in a span of just seven hitters -- and only five official at-bats.

But he still needed one more out. Up stepped Wilson, a man who once whiffed 187 times in one season (in 2000). But this was one strikeout Rodney couldn't get. Wilson was determined to "try not to do too much," he said. So he shortened his swing, punched another changeup through the left side and gave the Cardinals the lead, 4-3.

That lead would disappear fast, though. Three hitters into the top of the eighth, doubles by Pudge Rodriguez and Brandon Inge had turned this back into a 4-4 game. And in no more than five minutes, in a sold-out ballpark, elation had transformed right back into trepidation.

"Oh, it was an emotional roller coaster," said Cardinals closer Adam Wainwright, the man who had served up Inge's double. "No doubt about it. It seemed like both clubs almost got better once they got down."

Ah, but this was a roller coaster that had one more trip back up the mountain.

The Missing Inch
In stomped Tigers radar-gun king Joel Zumaya, to kick off the bottom of the eighth by doing the one thing he knew he couldn't do -- walk the leadoff hitter (Yadier Molina), on four pitches.

But Zumaya then clicked his strike-zone radar back on, and regrouped to get two huge outs. On the second out, however -- a third strike to Juan Encarnacion -- the baseball skipped past catcher Pudge Rodriguez. And the tying run was on second.

That brought the always-pesky Eckstein to the plate, hardly terrified by the thought of facing a man firing 100-mph smokeballs.

"He's a guy you know is going to fight for you," Wilson said of Eckstein. "It could be his first at-bat of the night or his last. But he always has that ability to have a six- or seven- or 11-pitch at-bat. He can do that with the best of them."

But this at-bat wouldn't require six or seven or 11 pitches. It would take just five. Eckstein worked the count to 3 and 1. The stadium organ pumped. Those 46,000 voices roared, waving their white rally towels. Eckstein rocked in the batter's box. Zumaya wound and fired.

Eckstein pounded a 99-mph flameball toward left-center. Monroe was playing him shallow, to give himself a play at the plate on a ground-ball hit. Suddenly, he had no choice but to turn and sprint as hard as he could across the damp grass.

"When that ball was hit," Tigers closer Todd Jones would say later, "all you could hear was dead silence in the stadium. You could see Craig running, running, running. And it was dead quiet. It was surreal."

As Monroe's feet pumped, it looked like one of those Hollywood dream sequences. You could see his legs moving. But he seemed to be traveling in slow motion, as if his wheels were spinning. You could almost count the steps: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

And then there was the baseball, barely an arm's reach away. He leaped, glove stretching as far as it could stretch. "I was right on it," Monroe said.

Sometimes in these moments, the glove wins. In this one, the baseball won -- ticking off the tip of Monroe's glove, skidding away into the Busch Triangle, as Aaron Miles pumped home with the winning run.

"It just kept going," said Monroe.

As Eckstein pumped up the first-base line, he couldn't help but watch -- and pray.

"I was hoping it was going to find a little bit of dirt or grass out there," he said. "But the ball was kind of straightening out, and it kept going. And it just reminded me [that] I played with a guy [in Anaheim] named Darin Erstad who made a catch like that at Yankee Stadium."

This time, however, it was Craig Monroe flying through the night, not Darin Erstad. This time, the leap wasn't quick enough and the glove wasn't long enough.

Asked about the traction, after two days of rain, Monroe replied, simply: "It is what it is. It's been raining every day, man. But I'm not making any excuses. None."

But he had run so far, come so close, even the men in the other uniform were still amazed by what they'd seen -- and grateful for how it turned out.

"Craig Monroe made an unbelievable attempt at that ball," said Wainwright. "He came out of nowhere. He looked like Superman flying around out there. And he almost snow-coned that ball."

But "almost" doesn't work in these October baseball games. "Almost" doesn't count. And "almost" doesn't help.

The only thing that can help the Tigers now is three straight wins. And if history offers them any hope, it is this: Just three teams have blown a 3-games-to-1 lead in any World Series in the expansion era. And two of them were the Cardinals (in 1985, to Kansas City, and in 1968, to -- whaddayaknow -- the Detroit Tigers).

But that doesn't mean these Tigers' odds are good. It only means their job isn't impossible. Of the other 39 teams to trail, 3 games to 1, in a best-of-seven World Series, only five have charged back to win.

And if this Tigers team doesn't make it six, the men who lived through this night will be thinking about this game. Thinking about Craig Monroe's leap and Curtis Granderson's tumble on the wrong patch of wet turf.

"But I can't think about that now," Granderson said. "Maybe when I get old, when I have a chance to sit back and reflect, I can look at it then. But not now. …

"The only thing we've got to try and do now is find a way to win three games -- and know that we can't win all three of those games tomorrow."

And if they never win those three games, then it will be time for the thinking. The thinking about that miniscule line between winning and losing that will wrap itself around all of their lives and careers.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.