The ritual is so familiar to Dan Quisenberry he almost doesn't have to think about it. Close game, ninth inning. He is up in the bullpen. He knows that if the opposition rallies, he is coming into the game.

"I expect to pitch every night," he said. "If I don't get it in, it's usually because the starters haven't been touched."

Tonight, in Game 2 of the World Series, he got into the game too late. Before that, he had watched from the bullpen as Charlie Leibrandt's masterpiece unraveled in the ninth inning and a 2-0 victory turned into what ultimately became a 4-2 loss.

"Having that happen when I'm in the game hurts; having it happen when I'm in the bullpen hurts," Quisenberry said. "I can't gauge pain. But either way, it's very painful. Tonight was painful."

Tonight, if you were part of the Royals, was a night to feel sick. Leibrandt, who came within one out and one strike of victory, couldn't bear to talk about it so he remained in the training room, icing his aching left elbow and aching heart.

"He's sick about it and I don't blame him," Manager Dick Howser said. "I decided in the ninth inning that I was going with Leibrandt. It was his game to win or lose all the way. That was my decision to make as manager and that's the way it should be.

"Quiz was up and he was ready, but I wasn't gonna make a move. It didn't work out. It's over and done with and there's nothing I can do about it."

Howser's chance to do something came in the ninth. Quisenberry, along with Bruce Sutter, has been the game's quintessential relief pitcher. But this year, for the first time, Quisenberry has been human at times.

"Early in the year," he said tonight, "I stunk."

He is one of baseball's characters. He is clever and funny and has a wit so sharp it often goes straight over his listener's heads. He delights in destroying baseball cliches.

Tonight, he asked someone with a wry smile, "what does 110 percent mean. How do you give 110 percent?"

But sense of humor aside, this has been a difficult year for him, even though he still was one of baseball's best relievers with an 8-9 record, 2.37 ERA and 37 saves.

"I used to think I could walk on water," he said once. "This year I've gotten wet."

Those plunges have put a question mark in Howser's mind. He won't admit it, but tonight it was obvious. Quisenberry, as always, was up as the ninth began. Leibrandt got two outs with Willie McGee on second base. As he warmed, Quisenberry was anticipating when he might get into the game.

"I thought I might pitch to (Jack ) Clark," he said. "I thought I might pitch to (Tito) Landrum or to (Cesar) Cedeno. I think Dick stuck with Charlie because he's pitched out of a lot of tight spots this year. I think his decision had more to do with him than with me.

"But," he added, "Maybe he thinks I'm tired."

Quisenberry lost one game in the American League Championship Series and gave up the winning hit in another. In the latter game, Leibrandt entered the ninth with a 1-0 lead and gave up a walk and a double to tie the game. Quisenberry came in and gave up two hits and the game was lost.

"I think, because of some of my inconsistencies, I've made it a little harder on Dick in terms of deciding whether to bring me in," Quisenberry said. "I like to pitch; that's my job. But I'm not here to manage or to try to guess what he wants. I do what I'm told."

Howser says he has not lost any faith in Quisenberry. The Cardinals scored an insurance run off Quisenberry in the ninth inning of Game 1 on Saturday. Howser said that didn't influence him either. Perhaps not. But Quisenberry didn't get in until after the Cardinals had scored their four runs tonight.

"I don't know what to think about it all," said center fielder Willie Wilson. "It was just a weird inning."

Whether it would have been different if Quisenberry had come in, no one ever will know. Quisenberry, because he keeps baseball in perspective, was able to sit in front of his locker when it was over and smile at the irony he sees in it all.

"The last time we were in the World Series, in 1980, people were saying that I was being put into games too soon," he said. "Now, it's the opposite. Maybe the next time we're here, I'll get it right."

Like Leibrandt, Quisenberry is soft-spoken and polite. Tonight, he dealt with wave after wave of reporters, each one asking the same question in a different form. Only once did he cringe even slightly. That was when someone asked, "Do you think Dick has repudiated you as his relief ace?"

"If he had, I wouldn't even have been warming up," Quisenberry said evenly. "That notion is just ridiculous."

Certainly it is. But Howser and Quisenberry both know that one year ago, Quisenberry would have been in the game to pitch to Clark. If not Clark, certainly Landrum. But he would not have been reduced to the role of spectator with a World Series game -- perhaps from the Royals' viewpoint, the entire World Series -- on the line.

"My job is to come in and get outs when I'm told to," Quisenberry said, his voice rising for emphasis on the last four words. "This kind of loss hurts us all. But we've been behind 2-0 before. We've cried together before, we've poured champagne together before. Whatever happens in this series, we'll go through it together."

Tonight, they went through an agonizing defeat together. But they did it without Quisenberry playing a role. That is new for him. It is new for the Royals.

And, it is a decision Howser, Quisenberry and everyone else in the Kansas City clubhouse may have to live with all winter long.