When Ozzie Smith starts the game with a cartwheel and full back flip, when the ancient team owner takes parade laps behind his Clydesdales, when 53,708 fans wave red placards as though this were a Nebraska football game, and when you absolutely, positively pull out all the stops, you're supposed to win.

If the St. Louis Cardinals had not won Game 3 of the National League playoffs today, now that would have been a miracle.

Considering all that befell the Los Angeles Dodgers this afternoon, it is perhaps surprising they didn't lose by more than 4-2.

Certainly, the Cardinals can take full solace from Danny Cox's victory and Tommy Herr's home run, from Vince Coleman's mind-bending base running and Terry Pendleton's amazing defense.

These once-again-proud Cardinals can convince themselves that, although they still trail, 2-1, in games, they're still much in the pennant hunt, with ace John Tudor on the mound against Jerry Reuss Sunday night here at 8:15.

Yet this Cardinals victory hardly ended as it began. After two innings, with St. Louis ahead by 4-0 and the Dodgers in disarray, the shape of this playoff seemed changed. The Dodgers were throwing the ball around as though they were scared children, while the Cardinals, possessors of 101 wins, looked ready to dish out endless retribution.

When Los Angeles starter Bob Welch missed second base by 10 yards on a simple first-inning pickoff, allowing Coleman and Willie McGee to each advance two bases, the Dodgers looked worried. That play led to two runs.

When catcher Mike Scioscia had Coleman trapped between first and second base, dead by 40 feet, then threw the ball into the right field corner, the Dodgers seemed ready for a guest appearance on "St. Elsewhere." That goofy peg, right out of the "Bad News Bears," led to the third Cardinals run.

When Herr launched his bases-empty homer, directly over the Dodgers logo on the right field fence, the score might have been 40-0. What hadn't happened? Coleman and McGee had stolen bases. Whitey Herzog had done a finger-pointing war dance with the home plate umpire.

The Dodgers had, before the first inning was over, left the bases loaded and watched their starting pitcher walk four men. What indignity might not await the visitors in a park in which one banner read: "The Dodgers: one more reason to hate California."

Slowly, however, this game changed. Gradually, the boring middle innings of a 3:21 marathon evolved into the taut late innings of a crucial contest. By the sixth, the Cardinals had put 16 men on base. And scored nobody since Herr's homer.

"When we started leaving men all over the bases, I really got worried about it," said Herzog. "That's when you usually get beat."

In the end, Herzog's law-firm bullpen of Horton, Worrell and Dayley got the final nine outs. But not before many a Cardinals fan lost hair.

Back-to-back doubles by Pedro Guerrero and Mike Marshall gave Los Angeles its first comeback run in the fourth. Then, a leadoff single by Steve Sax in the sixth knocked out starter Cox. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander easily could be excused for a short work day. He not only had a tender elbow, but has been under strain in the aftermath of his impromptu trip back to Georgia eight days ago. He had to fly home to punch the stuffing out of his former brother-in-law who, he says, had "threatened" his sister, mother and brother.

"I'd do it again," said Cox. "A man's got to do what he's got to do."

And Herzog had to wave to that makeshift, where's-Bruce-Sutter bullpen.

Rick Horton got two outs, then exited when Ken Landreaux singled home Sax. Todd Worrell got Bill Madlock to ground out, but jumped right back into hot water when Marshall doubled with one out in the eighth.

Before the Cardinals bullpen could get warm, Worrell got both Scioscia and slugger Greg Brock to pop out. On the second ball, Pendleton made a superb, sprinting, over-the-shoulder catch in foul territory beside the Dodgers bullpen mound to end the inning.

That just warmed up the bubbly little Pendleton, whose bizarre running style has earned him the nickname "Whirleybird."

Sax opened the ninth with a double. Goodbye, Worrell. Hello, Dayley.

Pinch-hitter Candy Maldonado smoked what looked like a double over third base. "That would have made it 4-3 with a man on second and nobody out," said Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda, shaking his head. "That play changed the whole complexion."

"That play" was a diving backhand stab by Pendleton, who threw out Maldonado. "I grew up on the Dodgers, listening to the radio," said Californian Pendleton, whose ground out brought home the game's first run.

"Ozzie Smith moved me a step closer to the line during that at bat," admitted Pendleton.

How could the Cardinals lose on a day when all their trademark virtues were on display: fabulous defense; daring, drive-'em-crazy baserunning; a deep bullpen, and Herzog's confident managing.

A popup and ground ball later, the Cardinals all were celebrating around the mound, doing more modest versions of the acrobatics that Smith had used to stir up the crowd 101 minutes before.

"That's really the way we've done it all year," said Herzog. "Like George Brett (of Kansas City) said (on Friday), 'The hole was dug and the dirt was ready.' We were lucky to hang on."

"It rattled us the other day," said Cardinals veteran Tito Landrum of the way the Dodgers had run the bases wildly in Los Angeles. "Why wouldn't it rattle them today?"

The Dodgers were in the same mood of disbelief as the Cardinals were on the West Coast. "They laid their A game on us and we gave our F game to them," said the Dodgers' Madlock. "We were just horsefeathers. Threw the ball all over the place. Couldn't even put the ball in play with men on base . . . "

When the Dodgers try to get to sleep tonight, visions of the horrors of the first two innings will bedevil them.

Just as Cox had escaped a one-out bases-loaded jam in the first inning of his vital victory over the New York Mets last week, so he wriggled free again, getting Marshall on a soft liner and Scioscia on a dribbler. "If Marshall hits one of the (two) doubles he hit later in the game," said Lasorda, "the whole thing's different."

Up came the mightily annoyed Cardinals. Coleman singled, then stole second on a pitchout after four pickoff throws. Contemptuous rookie. The already shaky Welch, who has been knocked out early in all three career postseason starts, walked McGee. On a 3-2 pitch to Herr, shortstop Anderson (playing for injured Mariano Duncan) called a pickoff.

Welch spun and threw to Paul Runge. Unfortunately, he was the second base umpire.

When the dust settled, McGee was on third, Coleman home. Pendleton grounded home the second run.

More madness marked the second inning. Coleman singled again, then "panicked" when he realized he was running on a pitchout. "If I'd run two more steps, made them throw throw (to second), then gone back to first, I might have made it easy. But I froze."

So did Scioscia, who dashed at Coleman, held the ball too long, then rushed a throw that bounced 15 feet from Brock. McGee soon singled home Coleman from third and Herr gave a bleacher fan a dented souvenir.

Who knew then that the Cardinals would end the day holding on by their fingernails?

In the movie "Missouri Breaks", Jack Nicholson says to Marlon Brando, "You're probably wondering why you just woke up. It's because I slit your throat."

Nicholson botched the job and Brando lived. (Otherwise, no movie.)

So far in this series, both the Dodgers and Cardinals have played Nicholson's role -- neither, so far, finishing the job.

That could take several more reels.