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RED SOX 4, CARDINALS 1

Magic number: 1

Vintage Martinez performance puts Red Sox on the brink of a world championship

ST. LOUIS -- A day after the 18th anniversary of Bill Buckner's fateful error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, the Red Sox knew they were battling history as well as the Cardinals last night, even as the folks back home planned a historic victory parade.

"Every time I see that ground ball rolling through the guy's legs, I turn the channel," first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "I don't want to see that. It plays in your mind."

After all, the Sox seized a 2-0 lead on the road against the Mets in the '86 Series before misery befell them in seven games after Buckner's blunder. And the last thing Terry Francona's dream-chasers wanted to do after going up, 2-0, in the 2004 Series was give the Cardinals a chance to tarnish another fine Boston player's legacy. As deposed manager Grady Little said after last year's disastrous finish against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, some of his players feared becoming the next Buckner.

Fear not.

Hardball heaven is one step away after Pedro Martinez and the Sox exploited the blundering Cardinals and banked a 4-1 victory before 52,015 at Busch Stadium to build a 3-0 cushion in the 100th Fall Classic. Derek Lowe could deliver the Sox to the pearly gates tonight as they try to clinch the franchise's first world championship since 1918.

"It would be a great thrill to be the winning pitcher in the ALDS, the ALCS, and the World Series," Lowe said. "Everybody's waiting for us to stumble and fall, but the guys all have a lot of confidence."

No team has blown a 3-0 lead in the World Series, but the Sox were not silly enough to place their faith in the historical record, especially after they became the first team in history to overcome a 3-0 deficit when they stunned the Yankees in the ALCS last week.

"We know we're going to have our hands full, but we still think we can win," Francona said. "That's our goal."

As if Martinez had something to prove -- he made his World Series debut and perhaps his last start in a Boston uniform -- he capitalized on the Cardinals running into two devastating outs in the first three innings and silenced the tailspinning Redbirds through seven.

"It's been a great ride," said Martinez, who is eligible for free agency after the Series. "I hope everybody enjoyed it as much as I did.

"I hope I get another chance to come back with this team, but I understand the business part of it. I hope everybody understands that I'm not the one who wanted to leave. If they don't get me, it's probably because they didn't try hard enough. My heart is with Boston."

Twice Martinez ran into trouble and each time the Cardinals rescued him. First, Larry Walker tried to score on a bases-loaded fly to left with one out in the first inning, only for Manny Ramirez to gun him down at the plate. Then with none out and runners at second and third in the third inning, old friend Jeff Suppan committed one of the ugliest gaffes in postseason history and ran himself into a rally-killing double play.

You could almost hear grateful New Englanders murmur, "Thanks, guys."

"It was a break," Martinez said, "and we took advantage of it."

With a little help from the Cardinals, Martinez made himself a winner by surrendering only three hits and a pair of walks. He retired the final 14 batters he faced after Suppan's blunder and capped his performance by catching Reggie Sanders swinging at a 92-mile-per-hour fastball to end the seventh.

"Phenomenal performance," Curt Schilling said. "He was unbelievable. They had one shot and they missed, and he ran with it after that."

The Sox bullpen handled the rest, as Mike Timlin retired the Cardinals in order in the eighth and Keith Foulke finished them off in the ninth despite surrendering his first run of the postseason, a one-out solo homer by Larry Walker.

"One more win!," a throng of Sox fans chanted behind the dugout afterward. "One more win!"

Ramirez set the tone for the Sox offense by launching a solo homer off Suppan in the first inning and singling home another run in the fifth. Trot Nixon and Bill Mueller also chipped in with RBI singles.

"This is big, but we learned our lesson against the Yankees," Ramirez said. "The Cardinals have such a great team. You've got to keep grinding out until you win the last game."

The Sox became the 21st team in World Series history to grab a 3-0 lead. Of the first 20 teams, all but three swept the Series. If the Sox follow suit, Bostonians could celebrate (peacefully, everyone hopes) tonight and prepare for one of the largest victory parades in the city's history as early as Friday.

In the hours before last night's game, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa joined the baseball masses in describing Martinez as a future Hall of Famer, though Martinez hardly looked like one in recent weeks. He entered the game 1-5 with a 6.64 ERA over his last eight appearances, including four in the postseason.

So, if statistics count for anything, Suppan entered the game with more momentum than Martinez, as he had gone 4-4 with a 5.17 ERA over his last eight outings, three in the playoffs. Yet the Sox gained some early steam.

With two outs in the first inning, Ramirez belted a 91-mile-an-hour fastball on a 2-and-2 count for his first World Series home run since 1997 with the Indians. The homer was the 18th of Ramirez's career in the postseason, tying Reggie Jackson and Mickey Mantle for second all-time, trailing Bernie Williams (22).

Staked to the 1-0 lead, Martinez struggled to hold it in the bottom of the first as he sandwiched walks to Walker and Scott Rolen around an infield single by Albert Pujols, loading the bases with one out. But just when it seemed the Cardinals would counter, Ramirez came up big, catching a fly by Jim Edmonds at medium depth in left and firing a one-hop strike to Jason Varitek in plenty of time to nail Walker.

Things got dicey again for Martinez in the third. Suppan started it by legging out an infield hit leading off. Edgar Renteria followed with an opposite-field double to the warning track in right, sending Suppan to third.

But once again fortune smiled on the Sox in their moment of need. Walker bounced a routine grounder to second baseman Mark Bellhorn, who was prepared to allow Suppan to score from third. Bellhorn fired to first to retire Walker, but in a crucial blunder, Suppan ran halfway for home, only to reverse direction, prompting David Ortiz to throw to Mueller at third in time to double up Suppan and kill the rally.

La Russa said Suppan misheard his orders from third base coach Jose Oquendo.

"Jeff heard, `No, no,' " La Russa said, "and he was yelling, `Go, go.' "

The Sox gathered momentum as Mueller doubled to left-center with two out in the fourth inning and raced home on Nixon's single deep to right for a 2-0 lead. And they struck again in the fifth when Ramirez singled home Johnny Damon, who had doubled leading off against Suppan, and Mueller knocked in Orlando Cabrera, who had singled.

"We're playing hard, but we still have another game," Cabrera said. "It ain't over till we win [tonight]."

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