Every couple of generations, or about as often as Halley's Comet comes around, the World Series produces a rally this rare.

How often does a team come to its last at bat trailing by more than a run and still pull out a ninth-inning win?

Sounds fairly routine. But the last time such a World Series comeback broke the bank was in 1929.

You think the Great Depression was bad? You should have seen the Chicago Cubs' fans after the old Philadelphia A's scored three in the ninth to win their 1929 Series game.

Kidding aside -- and you can listen a long time without hearing a laugh in this town tonight -- what Terry Pendleton and the St. Louis Cardinals did to the Kansas City Royals here was so rare it's lucky the Cardinals didn't know what they were up against.

Halley's Comet. Pendleton's Flare. Look sharp. May not see 'em again.

Trailing, 2-0, and down to their last out, the Cardinals came back to win, 4-2, and take a two-games-to-none lead in this 82nd Series. "The fatal blow," as Royals Manager Dick Howser called it, was a soft bases-loaded double into the left field corner by the chunky, bubbly Pendleton to score the last three runs.

No team ever has come back to win a World Series after losing the first two games at home. Just when it seemed the Royals had performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a mortally ill Series, St. Louis ruined the life-saving mission.

The Cardinals' final rally was so brutal a blow for the Royals that even St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog tried to explain away his own team's heroics as though they were some freak of nature.

The box score will be so deceitfully cut and dried. With two out and Willie McGee, who led off with a double, on second, Jack Clark singled home a run. Tito Landrum doubled Clark to third and Cesar Cedeno was intentionally walked. Then, Pendleton whipped the bases clean to break the heart of the Royals' Charlie Leibrandt, who entered the last inning with a two-hit shutout.

Don't bother to ask why Royals reliever Dan Quisenberry, who has 212 saves in this decade, still was in the bullpen while Leibrandt labored. Don't bother because two million Kansas City residents already are lined up outside Howser's office.

No unconventional, antipercentage hunch decision in a vital postseason game has blown up in a manager's face so dramatically in a long time. Well, not since Wednesday in Los Angeles. Howser and Tom Lasorda really should get together for golf this winter.

Herzog, pitying brethren Howser, said, "I guess sometimes you're not supposed to win a ballgame . . . Clark didn't murder his single. It was just a grounder that found its way through the left side . . . Landrum just stuck his bat out at a two-strike scroogie (screwball) and poked it down the right field line. And Terry just flared it down the left field line.

"We didn't really hit any balls good."

Neither Landrum's nor Pendleton's killer blows would have hurt a carton of eggs and both together weren't fair by more than a few yards.

Howser insisted that he was "not close at all" to pulling Leibrandt. "He was in complete command starting the inning. My coaches and I decidied it was his game to win or lose."

It might have been wise to modify that evaluation as events developed. Leibrandt has only 14 complete games in 100 career starts. Quisenberry has 253 wins-plus-saves in the '80s -- by far the greatest streak of relief pitching in baseball history. Although he gave up two game-losing hits to Toronto in the American League Championship Series, he also got the final outs of wins in the sixth and seventh games.

No team ever has depended so heavily on one reliever to finish such a high percentage of its victories. What happened to: "You dance with the one who brung you"?

Herzog tried to claim Pendleton had hit a great fast ball on the fists. Howser said, "Charlie wasn't losing his stuff or his control." Pendleton, however, put them both in danger of perjury citations: "He turned the ball over and hung it out there over the plate. It didn't have the snap of his earlier pitches . . . or the location . . . I felt like he was hanging the ball (on all four pitches of that at bat)."

Slip-streaming in Pendleton's long heroic shadow was supersub Landrum who, for the fourth straight game, started in left field in place of slightly injured rookie Vince Coleman. In the bottom of the seventh, Landrum made a beautiful charge, scoop and peg to the plate to nail Buddy Biancalana, who was trying to score from second on a Lonnie Smith single.

"The (ninth-inning) hit by Landrum hurt as much as any . . . right off the end of the bat," said Howser.

Such games often have hidden ironies. On Wednesday, for instance, tens of thousands of Los Angeles fans thought that Game 6 was a Dodgers victory after an apparent inning-ending double play grounder. Security troops even mobbed the field. But an umpire ruled that the ball had been foul by inches.

In the ninth this cool evening, McGee opened with his ground double over the third base bag. Moments earlier, his foul pop had fallen at Howser's feet in the Royals' dugout as sluggish first baseman Steve Balboni didn't quite arrive in time or reach far enough. But for that, the Cardinals might have been three up, three down in the ninth and Leibrandt might have had the first Series two-hitter in 14 years.

"That was as close as you can come and not catch it," said Howser minutes after the game. "That seems like an hour ago."

Until the amazing ninth, this game was a perfect illustration of the old adage that baseball is a game in which five minutes of action are crammed into 2 1/2 hours.

Make that about two minutes of action.

Until all Howser started breaking loose, this had been a three-batter game. Starting the fourth inning against Danny Cox, Willie Wilson grounded a single to right, George Brett hooked a hit-and-run RBI double over first base and Frank White cracked a run-scoring double up the alley in left.

Wilson, who struck out 12 times in the '80 Series, looked like he'd share a garland of laurels with White, who had more hits in this game (three) than he did in the entire '80 Series (two).

The Royals, it seemed, could forget all their errors of omission. Who cared that the gawd-awful Nos. 5-6-7 chunk of the Kansas City order had gone 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position. Twice the troika of Pat Sheridan, Jim Sundberg and Balboni had produced nothing after White was on second with nobody out.

Any historian will assure you that, with Hal McRae reduced to designated sitter, the bottom five spots in the Royals order are as weak as any in any Series. That, plus Landrum's throw to the plate, kept the Royals from having a five- or six-run lead entering the ninth.

"The toughest way to lose a game we lost tonight," said Brett.

The last truly parallel circumstance to this game was Philadelphia's three run rally for a 3-2 win in the fifth and final game of the 1929 Series against the Chicago Cubs. However, in 1939, the New York Yankees trailed Cincinnati, 4-2, entering the top of the ninth inning of the fourth and last game. The Yankees tied the Reds to force extra innings, then won, 7-4, in the 10th.

Both of those were Series-ending games, and this night's fine foolishness may have been just as decisive. Had the Royals won, the Cardinals might have worried about their rematches with tough left-handers Danny Jackson and Leibrandt in Games 4 and 5. Had the Royals won, the Cardinals might have fretted about slumping Joaquin Andujar pitching in Games 3 and 6. They might have worried about when Coleman, who's still questionable, will reappear in the leadoff hole.

Instead, everybody's praising Landrum (11 for 22 in the postseason). Who cares when Coleman comes back? Can he do better than throw out men at the plate, make sprinting catches and bat .455?

In the end, this night's mystery man was Quisenberry, the quiz that was never answered. "I won't put myself above the manager and say when I'll pitch," said Quisenberry, who had 45 wins plus saves and a 2.37 ERA this year, despite occasional rough spots. "I really work at never trying to manage."