Thursday, they survived. Tonight, they cruised. By dusk on Saturday, they probably will be celebrating.
This night, on a clear, cool fall evening, with 40,618 in Busch Stadium drinking in every moment, the St. Louis Cardinals played a prototype Cardinals baseball game, beating the Chicago Cubs, 4-2, to clinch at least a tie for the National League East pennant.
The victory maintained the Cardinals' two-game lead over the New York Mets -- who were 9-4 winners over Montreal -- with two to play. A St. Louis victory or New York loss Saturday or Sunday will clinch the title for the Cardinals.
St. Louis used all the familiar ingredients that got it to this point in putting together their 100th victory. They got a superb pitching performance from Bob Forsch (9-6), who gave up three hits in the first four innings and then retired the next 13 men before surrendering two ninth-inning singles. He then gave way to Todd Worrell, who let those two runs score, but no more.
They got a home run from Andy Van Slyke, a run manufactured by the speed of Vince Coleman and two more created by their astroturf park. And, naturally, there were several fielding gems by shortstop Ozzie Smith.
In all, the evening was a summation of this stunning season, which should culminate in a title Saturday afternoon when John Tudor, who has won 19 of his last 20 decisions, attempts to pitch the Cardinals into next week's playoffs.
Having salvaged the final game of the series with the Mets to keep command of the race, the Cardinals were a loose, happy team this evening as they prepared to play.
Manager Whitey Herzog entertained in his office, doing Gene Autry imitations. Second baseman Tommy Herr had his 4-year-old son Aaron around the batting cage and was playing pepper with him while the Cubs took their swings.
Former Cardinal Leon Durham, perhaps wishfully, paraded among his old teammates, acting as if he was about to be part of a pennant.
Watching the reverie, Cubs Manager Jim Frey, who was on the other side of the fence at this time a year ago, shook his head and said, "So this is the pennant race."
How the two teams reached their current positions was quickly apparent once the game began. In the bottom of the first, Coleman, the St. Louis catalyst, fouled a pitch off his foot and went down in a heap, apparently in great pain.
When he finally struggled to his feet and stepped back in, he hit a one-hop grounder wide of first. Durham, perhaps still thinking himself a Cardinal, took one step to his right and then watched the ball glance off the side of his glove. The ball trickled into the outfield while Coleman, his injury suddenly having disappeared, streaked to second with what was generously scored a double.
That led to a typical Cardinals run. Willie McGee grounded to short and Coleman took third, something a less swift player would not have considered. And Tommy Herr followed with a sacrifice fly to center, driving in his 109th run of the season. Without benefit of a real hit, the Cardinals led, 1-0.
In the top of the second, they again showed why their record is so superb. With one out, Durham crushed a low line drive toward left, a sure hit. But not with Smith at shortstop. The Wizard dove to his right, flinging his body horizontal to the ground. From that position, he reached across his body and stabbed the sinking bullet just before it skipped through en route to the wall.
It was a typical Smith gem. That play got Forsch through the second. In the bottom of the third, the Cardinals should have extended their lead -- but didn't. Coleman led off with a single to center and -- naturally -- stole second on the first pitch, his 110th steal of the season. But on the next pitch, Cubs starter Dennis Eckersley (11-7) picked him off, spinning and throwing to shortstop Shawon Dunston, who slapped the tag on the shocked Coleman.
That play saved a run because McGee promptly ripped the next pitch to center for a base hit that surely would have scored Coleman. Instead, even though McGee stole second, the Cardinals got nothing because Herr and Jack Clark both struck out looking.
The Cubs had their first real chance in the fourth. Gary Matthews led off with a single to right. With one out, Keith Moreland singled him to second. But Jody Davis hit into an easy 5-4-3 double-play that quickly ended the inning.
Having escaped that brief threat, the Cardinals extended the lead in the bottom of the inning when Van Slyke led off with a home run to right field, driving an 0-1 Eckersley pitch into the middle deck, the ball clearing the blue fence -- appropriately enough -- just over the Dodgers logo.
The 2-0 lead looked awfully safe as Forsch settled into a groove in the middle innings. He got two strikeouts and a ground ball in the fifth and two ground balls and a strikeout in the sixth.
The fans, in the meantime, were entertaining themselves by playing scoreboard with the Mets-Expos game. They cheered lustily when Montreal's Tim Raines tied that game at 4-4 in the fifth and booed with equal vigor when the message flashed that Vance Law had hit into a bases-loaded double play with one out in the Expos seventh.
But none of that seemed to bother Forsch or the Cardinals, masters as they were of their own fate. Forsch extended his skein to 10 straight batters in the seventh even though Moreland and Davis hit the ball hard and deep.
Having watched the Cubs futilely attempt to play long ball, St. Louis then knocked out Eckersley and put the game away in the bottom of the inning as Darrell Porter and Smith hit back-to-back triples and Forsch singled in Smith to make it 4-0.