SAN FRANCISCO, OCT. 9 -- If the St. Louis Cardinals make it to the World Series, they'll talk until the Mississippi River runs dry about winning this 6-5 playoff game in Candlestick Park.

They'll praise home plate umpire Dave Pallone for overruling third base umpire Bob Engel to give Vince Coleman a second life on the pitch before his game-winning hit. Without that, would the Cardinals lead this Chmpionship Series two games to one?

They'll rehash how the cocksure San Francisco Giants were already putting in defensive substitutes with a 4-0 lead, counting this vital Game 3 of the National League Championship Series in the victory column, before the injured Cardinals started clawing back with two runs in the sixth and with four runs in the seventh inning that tied the NL's best previous playoff comeback.

Most of all the Cardinals will recall the goofy lineup of rookies, fading veterans, little-knowns and pinch hitters -- especially Jim Lindeman (three RBI), winning pitcher Bob Forsch, Jose Oquendo, Curt Ford and Dan Driessen -- who held the fort while so many Cardinals stars continue to sit and heal.

So what if Jack Clark and Terry Pendleton -- 201 RBI worth of hitters -- have sprained ankles and won't be back until who knows when? Who cares if Willie McGee's wrist and Danny Cox's neck are stiff? Let the healthy Giants fret.

Just as the battered Cardinals appeared demoralized, they rose to stun the Giants, who seemed to have this game -- and probably this playoff -- in their hands. "That's the first time I've ever sweated in Candlestick Park," joked Cardinals Manager Whitey Herzog, adding defiantly: "I don't like to harp on injuries, but we've lost 200 RBI. I'm getting a lot of mail here in San Francisco about how we're a dull team -- a bunch of dinkers. If we're dull, why did we draw 3 million and set a National League attendance record on the road?"

The Cardinals were at their dull, dinking, thrilling, resourceful best in that four-run seventh when they transformed a game -- and perhaps more -- with a soft line single, a broken-bat flare single, two groundball hits up the middle, a bunt hit, a stolen base, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly. Not one ball hit hard. But enough.

Coleman's game-winning two-run single into center field -- inches under the glove of losing reliever Don Robinson -- was, in every sense, the crucial and symbolic moment in this game. Coleman's hit was the fulcrum of an uprising that included a two-run homer by rookie Lindeman in the sixth inning and that four-run Cardinals water torture against gritty starter Atlee Hammaker, the luckless Robinson and Craig Lefferts in the seventh.

Clean, soft singles by Oquendo, Ford and Driessen started the seventh and cut San Francisco's margin to 4-3. With the all-time record crowd of 57,913 in the stadium suddenly silenced, Coleman hit a chop down the third base line that Kevin Mitchell fielded and threw home, putting Ford in a routine rundown. Engel was waving "fair." That would have left the score 4-3, with Cardinals at the corners and one out. A livable position for the Giants.

Instead, Pallone ruled (correctly, replays showed) that the ball was foul.

Back to the box went Coleman. On the next pitch, he put the Cardinals ahead, 5-4. As quick as you can say "bunt hit by Ozzie Smith, sacrifice bunt by Tommy Herr and sacrifice fly by Lindeman," Coleman had scored, also, and St. Louis had an insurance run. That was vital. Star reliever Todd Worrell needed every inch of slack to survive.

In the eighth, the Giants' Will Clark hit the very top of the fence in right with a line drive double, but was stranded -- a crucial foot, as it proved, because, with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning, Harry Spilman hit a pinch homer over the same fence to cut the lead to 6-5.

Now, the Giants can wonder how they squandered six strong innings by Hammaker and a third solo home run in three games by Jeffrey Leonard. What if Clark's drive had been higher? What if Mitchell's game-ending drive to deep left had been longer?

One "what if," however, hangs above all others. What if the Giants had not been overconfident and shown it? When Jack Clark pinch-hit with two on and two out in the fifth -- and was called out on strikes on one of Hammaker's fastballs -- this game seemed to be in the books and over. Surely 4-0 was plenty.

When the Giants loaded the bases with one out in their fifth inning off the elderly Forsch, it seemed like overkill. Just look at Smith and Herr, the Cardinals' healthy mainstays, kicking away a routine double play to create the big jam. Poor Cardinals. Finish 'em with a grand slam.

Both Chili Davis and Will Clark came up swinging for the fences. Remember the second inning when Davis, Clark and Bob Brenly hit three consecutive pitches for a double, single and double for two runs and rattled Joe Magrane ended up wild-pitching home Brenly for a 3-0 lead? Now, Chili and Wili would finish the assault.

Except they didn't. Both hit weak fly balls. The best shot was blown.

"That was the key play, that was the ball game, when old Forschy escaped," said Herzog. "They score a couple more, then they've put us away."

Instead, the Cardinals started to breathe when Smith singled and Lindeman -- Clark's replacement and a very odd man to have batting cleanup -- homered over the right field fence off Hammaker. "This is the greatest thing that's happened to me," said Lindeman, who has nine career homers and badly botched two defensive plays at first base in the nervous early innings when he couldn't get that sticky ol' baseball out of his glove to make throws.

Now, the Cardinals have breathing room; the Giants have bad dreams. Why did Giants Manager Roger Craig bring in Robinson, not Lefferts, and let the Cardinals use their left-handed pinch hitters in the seventh? Why did he put in Eddie Milner as a substitute for Davis in the sixth and lose an important turn at bat for Davis?

All season, the Cardinals had injuries that seemed to doom them to the pursuit of the world champion New York Mets. Yet the Cardinals kept finding ways to win. Now, the Giants have discovered how easy the Cardinals are to corner and how hard to finish.