ST. LOUIS -- "For the last six years, I've found myself almost apologizing for the way we play . . . When I was a kid, I used to follow the Dodgers, and they were like us. They had defense and pitching and they won. I can't recall the Dodgers always having to apologize for the way they played."

Ozzie Smith, St. Louis Cardinals

Maybe now the Cardinals can stop tugging their forelocks and kicking the dirt with their toes as they try to explain why a bitty band of rabbits, dinkers, dunkers, sinkerballers and change-up artists can be on the brink of winning the World Series.

"I don't know if we can beat Frank Viola," says Manager Whitey Herzog one day. "I don't know if we can score enough runs to pull this thing out," he says the next. "We're really struggling without Jack Clark and Pendleton. Greg Mathews is out for the Series now. If it goes seven games, I'm gonna to call Koufax and see how his arm feels."

Thursday night, after his team's 4-2 win in Game 5, Herzog was back at it, poor- mouthing to beat the band -- or the Twins. "Our fans were about one-fifth as loud as theirs 'cause there's air above you here . . . Gonna be tough. Hope we can keep the ball in that park . . . We've been struggling since the all-star break."

The poor, pathetic Cardinals, the Out of Gas Gang, the Going, Going Gone Cards, are one victory from another world title. After three straight losses, the Minnesota Twins look like they don't know what hit them. Now, we all go back to Minneapolis with John Tudor, who's won 43 of his last 53 decisions and mesmerized the Twins in Game 3, going against Les Straker, career 8-10, who pitched the game of his life last time out (six shutout innings) and isn't likely to do it again.

What the Cardinals displayed here for three nights was old-fashioned baseball. Every aspect of the game, except power hitting. Gross score: 14-5. As bad in its way as the 18-5 assault the Twins dropped on the Cardinals in the Metrodome.

The Twins laid their best shot on the Cardinals back then and St. Louis barely blinked. Will the Twins have that much retaliatory strength now? "We just have to show them what we can do. They don't know yet," said Tommy Herr before Game 3. "We have to get them rattled, prove we can steal, make them think about the hit and run."

Now, the Twins are blinking plenty. They are showing every symptom of a National League disease called Cardinal Coma. In the sixth inning of a scoreless game Thursday evening, Vince Coleman hit a grounder right at first baseman Kent Hrbek. It took a flat skip, no big deal. But the portly 244-pound Hrbek got the jitters and booted the ball. It rolled one foot away. That was all Coleman needed to reach first -- safe in a tie. Next, Ozzie Smith bunted toward third. Bert Blyleven had time to make a play, but he rushed -- tried for a short-hop, bare-hand pickup. Next, Coleman and Smith pulled a double steal -- didn't even draw a throw as catcher Tim Laudner dropped the pitch trying to rush his peg.

Just when Blyleven should have been out of the jam -- bases loaded, two outs and young Curt Ford at the plate -- Coleman got back in the act, dancing off third, threatening to steal home, doing the best Jackie Robinson imitation in 30 years. Blyleven threw two balls, had to come in with fastball strikes and Ford snapped a little two-run liner to center. Before the inning was over, shortstop Greg Gagne had dropped a perfect room service hop of a grounder, then kicked it halfway to first base as a run scored.

By the time the dust (and the Twins' brains) had cleared, the Cardinals had stolen five bases (the most in a Series game in 80 years), caused a balk, precipitated an error, beaten out a grounder to short and pulled off two perfect hit and runs with Jose Oquendo stealing and Tony Pena hitting to right.

The longer this Series goes, the more the Cardinals learn about how to pitch to the Twins sluggers. Heat to Gary Gaetti and slop to Tom Brunansky. The Twins have hit only two or three balls here in three games that would have reached a fence in the Metrodome, much less gone over one. Herzog says four; he'd say 20 if he could get anybody to believe it. Replay these contests in the Thunderdome and, unless eight balls are lost in the stupid ceiling, the scores are the same: 3-1, 7-2 and 4-2.

The Cardinals have learned that they can handle Juan Berenguer. Even Berenguer, in an unwise admission, said the Cardinals were perfect to beat him with their slap-hitting, which negates his fastballs. The Cardinals often lit up Jeff Reardon when he was a National Leaguer and don't fear him at all. They've nailed Frank Viola; if they face him in Game 7, they know that his ERA on three days' rest is two runs higher than on four days' or more. As for rookie Straker, they can't wait. Run? If they get to first base, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

The Cardinals vow that the Dome's noise does not bother them, only the roof and the short fences. Maybe and maybe not. If all that is involved in the rest of this Series is a resolution of which team is the better total baseball outfit, then this shebang is history already because both clubs should know the answer to that one by now.

If the Cardinals finish their execution as swiftly and convincingly as they concluded the final game against the Giants, then the Upper Midwest may have unkind words to say about the Twins this winter. They should not. The Cardinals, even without Clark, Pendleton and Mathews, are vastly better than many people think.

The Twins -- who have nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of -- are no longer among the legions who wonder how in the world the apologetic little depleted Cardinals can do the crazy things they do.