Get ready for the World Series plot to thicken. Okay, okay, make that root for the plot to thicken.

Minnesota and St. Louis could be such wonderful foils for each other, and produce such a marvelously theatrical six- or seven-game Series with building tension and complexity, that it would seem like a loss to fans in general if the Wobegon Cardinals simply decide they can't beat a team as hot as the Twins in a park as crazy as the Thunderdome with as many injuries as they're enduring.

To their credit, both teams seem to be in almost ideal frames of mind at the moment. Neither is in need of a reality check. The Cardinals know they are on the ropes and that the Twins have the confidence, firepower and anger to close out this Classic in St. Louis. The Twins, thanks largely to Manager Tom Kelly's acidic tongue, know the Cardinals are the 1980s proven masters of the postseason comeback and can still win.

"They still have to win two. We have to win four, unfortunately," said John Tudor, who will start Tuesday night against the Twins' eminently mortal Les Straker, who spent 10 years in the minors and writes notes to himself in his glove between innings, then refers to them between pitches.

"History says the odds are against us," added Tudor, 10-2 this year to Straker's 8-10. "But if we'd listened to history, we wouldn't have beaten San Francisco {in '87} or Los Angeles {in '85} or the Brewers {in '82}. Or lost to Kansas City {in '85}."

Perhaps no team has ever had more experience with and perspective on postseason wind shifts. They've come from behind, 2-3, 0-2 and 2-3, to win in October, yet lost from 3-1. They know that in the last 10 years, the dominant trend in postseason baseball has been the collapse of prohibitive favorites after one traumatic momentum reversal.

If you'd spent the last decade betting against every team that led a playoff or Series by two games, you'd be rich enough to own a team now. First of all, you get fine odds, usually 4 to 1 or more. But you'd hardly need them. Five of the last nine Series have seen such 2-0 or 3-1 flops. It has befallen the Dodgers, Orioles, Yankees, Cardinals and Red Sox. Five league championship series have seen it, too -- just in the '80s. Remember the Angels, Cubs, Dodgers, Blue Jays and Angels again.

That's right, 10 teams have blown the kind of lead that Minnesota has in just the last nine years. In all, 19 teams with postseason leads have ended up "ignominious" losers since 1977. The best guess here is that with 67 zillion people watching, it is extraordinarily easy to get happy too soon; conversely, it may be far easier than ever before to panic when you feel the humiliation of losing something you thought you owned.

Still, the Cardinals aren't banking on anything as flimsy as a mystery trend. "Now, in Game 3, it's win or else," said Tudor. "Otherwise, it's a long road back without much gas in the car."

"Like Sparky {Anderson} said when he went home down two games, 'I'm not gonna kid you. We're in deep trouble,' " said Cardinals Manager Whitey Herzog, who then added, "Lemme see, we've played 171 games and I've been saying, 'Hang in there,' all year."

The Twins sound exactly opposite. Kelly lectured Dan Gladden on Sunday after reading a Gladden quote about how he'd thought about "putting down a flap," like Jeffrey Leonard as he ran out his Game 1 homer. "It's a dumb thing even to say," said Kelly, a smart, tart man who's perfected playing dumb and bland. How often does a player get chewed for hitting a slam? But Kelly was right.

Viola, asked if he was "thinking sweep," snapped back, "Why? . . . There is no way this team is going to be overconfident. We've been through so many bad times we're not going to take the good times for granted. It's been a long, uphill battle for most of us."

Both the Twins and Cardinals are true to the lessons of their heritages. The Twins are still 118 games under .500 in this decade; the Cardinals are 103 games over since Herzog arrived in '81. What Twin can imagine counting chickens? What Cardinal would think of quitting?

Both teams recognize the obvious dynamic at work in this Series. The Twins are a big-inning American League team that has laid on the Cardinals two of the larger innings in Series history. "We haven't done anything to embarrass ourselves except allow two big innings," says Tom Herr. "We can't let 'em string hits." The Cardinals appreciate the irony that the Twins' eruptions have mostly been Cardinals-style ground ball singles followed by something barrel-chested that goes over or off a fence.

St. Louis pitchers have had plenty of quick, easy innings. But, twice, when they needed one key pitch or catch, the Twins would not allow it and completed their carnage.

The Cardinals are a little-inning, hit-and-run speed National League team. "They say speed never goes into slumps," says Herzog. "That's not true."

When speed fails to steal first base, teams like the Cardinals go as dead as slugging clubs do when they lose confidence and start chasing pitches. The top three hitters in the St. Louis order are the culprits far more than the absence of Jack Clark or the limiting injuries of Terry Pendleton and Willie McGee. Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith and Herr have an .083 Series on-base percentage. Pitchers do twice that well. In fact, in three World Series, Smith (eight for 55) and Herr (eight for 59) have been batting flops every time. In this postseason, the three top-of-the-order Cardinals (hitting .196) have six runs and three steals -- less than a third their normal numbers. All normally have good eyes. Now, all are impatient, especially Herr (no walks).

Let's play out a scenario for fun. Tudor wins No. 3 and Viola takes No. 4. (Or they both lose. Either way, 3-1 Twins.) Kelly starts Bert Blyleven in No. 5 going for the quick kill, just as he did against Detroit. Herzog counters with Bob Forsch, as he's said he will. On three days' rest, the 36-year-old Blyleven has a poor day. The Twins bullpen can't hold. St. Louis steals a wild one. Back to Minnesota where a rested Danny Cox beats Straker -- hardly a remote possibility.

Now, we have Viola at home, pitching on three days' rest for the second straight time against Tudor on four days with his experienced Cardinals behind him facing the pandemonium of the Metrodome. Who do you like in that one, Mr. and Mrs. Bored American Public?

In Minnesota, they'd settle for a sweep. As for the rest of us, why not pull for any of many thickened plots?