It's almost never easy to win baseball games in October, not even when you are the smartest manager in the majors.

Just look at Tony La Russa.

While his St. Louis Cardinals ground out a 6-4 victory, the man was not his GQ self Thursday night. In fact, he was pretty much a mess.

La Russa spent hours standing in the rain on the top step of the Busch Stadium dugout. Water ran from the bill of his red cap down the side of his face, prompting him to keep drying himself off with a towel. He hid his hands in the pocket of his jacket when he could, hiding them from the chill.

These were not nice conditions for duck hunting, let alone baseball. But it is ordeals like these that keep La Russa engaged, not to mention employed. He lives for ninth-inning leads, which he didn't have in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series until Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen hit back-to-back homers in the eighth.

There might not be a single owner who wouldn't want this clubhouse lawyer managing his team. He has run major league teams 26 years and has been fired once, and you better believe Jerry Reinsdorf would take that 1986 move back if he could.

But for his 2,114 regular season victories, which ranks him sixth, La Russa has only one World Series ring, the one he won with the Oakland A's in 1989. He has been in St. Louis nine years and hasn't gotten the Cardinals to baseball's promised land.

He has gotten them to the doorstep in 1996, '00 and '02 but lost the championship series every time. Including the one he lost with Oakland in 1992, La Russa's teams have lost the last four times they reached the semifinals.

No wonder he was so nervous watching the Houston Astros' Pete Munro shut down the Cardinals in the early innings. The 29-year-old spot starter threw strikes against St. Louis' feared lineup and somehow held a 3-0 lead when he went to the mound in the fifth inning.

For awhile, this was man-bites-dog stuff. But baseball is seldom a sport of a whiles and Munro's lack of pedigree -- not to mention a 93-m.p.h. fastball -- caught up to him the third time around the Cardinals' lineup.

With two outs and a man on, Walker pulled a line drive over the right-field fence to cut the deficit to 3-2. Pujols then lined his second single of the game into center. Astros Manager Phil Garner decided enough was enough. He brought in Chad Harville to face Rolen, and his second pitch was smashed into the left-field seats.

It wasn't the only decision that backfired on Garner. He had decided he wasn't going to bring closer Brad Lidge into a tie game until the ninth inning so the Astros wound up falling into a two-game hole with Dan Miceli on the mound and Lidge scratching his head.

These are the kind of decisions managers make all the time. They are forgotten quickly when they go bad in May and June, but not so much in September and October.

This was a victory the Cardinals needed. They had won the NLCS opener 10-7 but, with three games at Minute Maid Park ahead of them, could not afford to let Houston gain a split in the first leg of this best-of-seven affair.

The Astros figure to get boosts from Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and a quirky home field on which they did not lose a game from Aug. 22 through last Saturday. And La Russa knows how quickly the door can swing from in to out.

Few know how badly he burns to get back to the World Series because the mature version of La Russa has become quite adept at deflecting attention. La Russa has done a wonderful job of keeping his uncertain status from becoming a major story line for a 105-victory team.

This is the final year on a three-year contract and no extension was offered either him or General Manager Walt Jocketty a year ago.

After St. Louis got off to a fast start, largely because of the work La Russa and pitching coach/sidekick Dave Duncan did with projects like Chris Carpenter and Jason Marquis, owner Bill DeWitt Jr. approached La Russa about a deal. La Russa put it on the back burner because, ostensibly, he thought it would be hypocritical to negotiate while Edgar Renteria, Matt Morris and others approached free agency.

There are managerial vacancies in Seattle, Philadelphia, Arizona and with the New York Mets, and other clubs might create an opening if they knew La Russa was interested. But he says he's not going anywhere if the Cardinals win the World Series. In fact, he has said he will manage for free if that happens. But the task at hand is getting there.

"We've taken care of the home-field advantage, but there's nobody in our clubhouse whooping it up," La Russa said. "We're going to a tough place to play and playing a very good team. . . . That's why nobody's celebrating."

Tony La Russa, who won World Series in '89, has been with Cards 9 years.