They carried Steve Garvey off the field tonight.

It was either that or just bow down and kiss his feet as he trotted home.

The San Diego Padres carried baseball's littlest big man off on their shoulders this evening as though the National League pennant had been won when his ninth-inning home run left the park and ended a 7-5 playoff classic.

They hauled him off, this proud little prince of a ballplayer, as though the Padres and the numb Chicago Cubs didn't have to play one more time on Sunday, winner take all and hello World Series.

Four times Garvey came to the plate and four times his almost perfect swing lashed out run-scoring hits that broke the hearts of the Cubs. Or can you break a Cub's heart? Doesn't that come with the uniform, the franchise, the history?

This was the night the Cubs could have ended the long suffering. This was the night when the 39-year wait between World Series might have ended.

Instead the worst -- the absolute worst -- day in Cubs history might be just a few hours away.

Instead, it was the night Garvey got to show the world that the haughty Los Angeles Dodgers just up the pike here should never, ever have let him go. His five RBI in one game tied Don Baylor's championship series record and his career total of 20 RBI in championships series broke Reggie Jackson's record.

The last time up was the best because the capacity crowd in Jack Murphy Stadium knew that Cub pitcher Lee Smith, a dainty 6-foot-6, 250-pound specimen, was grossly overmatched by the 5-8 Garvey, just as 6-4 Scott Sanderson and 6-7, 260-pound Tim Stoddard had been bested before.

Sure, Garvey doubled home a run in the third for a 2-0 lead. And he singled home another in the fifth to knock out Sanderson and tie the game, 3-3. And, okay, okay, he got what looked like a tie-breaking, game-winning single in the seventh off Stoddard for a 4-3 lead.

But the best was the ninth.

With one out and Tony Gwynn on first base after a single, Garvey drove a piercing line-drive home run over the 370-foot sign in right-center field here to shatter a 5-5 tie in this fourth playoff game battle.

Now, there will be a fifth and ultimate game, a game to drag any baseball fan away from any task and plunk him close to a TV set. First pitch, 4:25 p.m. (EDT) on ABC-TV. Rick Sutcliffe, the emblem of the Cubs, the chap with 15 wins in a row and a 17-1 Chicago record (including the playoff opener), will represent the terribly shaken Cubs, who are now in danger of being the first NL team ever to blow a 2-0 championship series lead.

And, for the Padres, that spokesman for the extreme right wing, Eric Show, will start. The last time they met, the score was 13-0, Cubs.

But that was in a different park. Wrigley something-or-other. And those were different Cubs and different Padres. Different because of Garvey.

"Being carried off the field was one of the greatest moments of my life," said the emotionally taut Garvey, who has always been saddened that his teammates have had a hard time cracking through his stiff Mr. Perfect exterior to see the wry humor, the basic decency inside the son of a Dodger bus driver. "I guess my teammates thought, 'He's kind of a short stump guy. We can lift him.'

"Basically, I was just trying to drive the ball," continued Garvey, explaining the culmination of his five-RBI night. "I hit it squarely. Then, it was just frozen in time. All time stopped . . . Sound, time, it just all seemed to stop. You know you've achieved something you'll always remember, because it was so difficult."

Garvey paused. He may have played in 1,207 games in a row once. He may be one of the toughest, most muscular cusses who ever said, "I'll die before I fail." Oh, he's one of the few who's hand-to-hand combat tough.

Those hard, inflexible traits are also his Achilles' heel, the source of one of baseball's messiest and most public divorces. Cyndy Garvey said some things about her husband -- to the world -- that no home run will ever completely erase.

"I'd like to dedicate this home run," said Garvey, "to two very gorgeous girls back in New York. My daughters Krisha and Whitney. I called them last night and they said, 'Come on, Daddy. Gotta come back.' "

To their credit -- and if they lose on Sunday, who will ever give them the credit they deserve? -- the Cubs were the team that really came back. They came back from a 2-0 deficit in the fourth inning when Jody Davis and Leon (Bull) Durham hit back-to-back home runs for a 3-2 lead off starter Tim Lollar.

The Cubs also came back in the eighth inning, when they trailed, 5-3, with two explosive runs off a gentleman named Goose Gossage, who is extremely unaccustomed to being shown the complete lack of respect that he endured in his one brief ineffective inning this night.

Gossage gave up two runs, to squander a 5-3 lead, RBI hits by Keith Moreland and Davis. Davis' two-out hit was especially dramatic since it atoned for a run-scoring passed ball that had clanked off his mitt the previous half-inning.

The Padres also got a huge scare in the top of the ninth inning when Chicago loaded the bases against lefty winner Craig Lefferts. After a one-out double by Bob Dernier, a two-out intentional walk to Gary Matthews and a hit-batsman (Henry Cotto), Ron Cey grounded out to second base.

This wasn't to be Cey's night for legend. Instead, it was Garvey who left a game behind him that will always be remembered first when his name is mentioned, first before anything he ever did as a Dodger. When was the last time that any player ever came through four straight times in genuine clutch season-on-the-line situations in a postseason game? It will take a while to find out, but there's an excellent chance that nobody has ever had such a string of clutch hits when the stakes were so high.

"This is the best playoff game I have ever been associated with. . . World Series, too," said Padres Manager Dick Williams, who took Oakland and Boston teams to the Series. "Garvey was fantastic. I had Carl Yastrzemski in '67 when he carried us for weeks, but I don't recall him having a day like this.

"I love our chances now. Their pitcher (Sutcliffe) has won 15 in a row but the percentages are with us now. He's great, but I think we're going to rise to the occasion," said the normally crusty Williams, carrying a rose and a beer. "Everybody wants to see this last one . . . I'm watchin' just like you. I'm chewing my nails, too, but maybe a little more."

Really chewing his nails is Cubs Manager Jim (Small) Frey who knows he's captain of a ship that's taken torpedos fore and aft. The list is apparent, especially after the way the Cubs battled and blasted and emptied their bullpen and still lost tonight.

"He got us all night," said Frey, not having to say who. "It looked like we win . . . He's been doing it a long time. I guess that's why they gave him all that money to come down here . . . Credit his hitting. Don't fault the pitcher. There's a heck of a lot of guys wearing these funny (baseball) uniforms who wouldn't have done that."

Frey's face looked as if he'd just come back from a body bag count in his locker room and found that the total was 25. Asked "the mood of his team," Frey said, "I don't want to be rude. I won't answer that."

One thing Frey will have to answer for is his decision to walk Gwynn in the seventh inning of a 3-3 game with a man on second and two outs so he could get to Garvey.

Maybe you could say that Gwynn was the batting champ (.351) this year, or that he's already driven in the game's first run with a fly just before Garvey's double in the third.

But that ignores Garvey's personality, a whole soul built on pride, or, in recent years, wounded pride. "It was right strategically. Get the right-handed hitter against the right-handed pitcher," said Garvey.

"I know that but I tend to take that in my mind and twist it around and say, 'Oh, they're walking Tony to pitch to me.' I like those situations."

"He hit everything," said Frey shaking his head. "Pulled a curve ball down the line for a double (to left). Hit a low fast ball through the box for a two-out hit. Hit a slider (through the shortstop hole) for a two-out hit. And a fast ball up and away for the homer."

This game had strategy and breaks and head-pounding noise. It had both bullpen aces -- Gossage and Smith -- looking vulnerable. It left the Cubs in a spot where they have to reach deeper than they ever have before, and it left the Padres on a wave -- a 58,346 person wave.

This game had all those things.

But few will remember it. Like the sixth game of the 1975 World Series, which overshadowed the Cincinnati Reds' title, this night will be remembered for one man.

That night in Fenway Park we had Carlton Fisk waving and begging for a home run to hit the foul pole. This evening we had Steve Garvey, exit stage right, on the shoulders of his team.