Red Sox 4, Cardinals 1

-- Things are happening that shouldn't happen, not on this stage, not in the World Series, and certainly not for the benefit of the perpetually cursed Boston Red Sox. But they keep happening -- strange things, unprecedented things, inexplicable things -- and the signs all point to the same unavoidable conclusion: This Red Sox team is the one. This is their time. This -- oh, sweet merciful heaven -- is the year.

On Tuesday night in Game 3 of the World Series, the latest extraordinary thing happened to the Red Sox. The St. Louis Cardinals reached across the Busch Stadium diamond and handed Boston a victory, which it graciously accepted. And now, following a 4-1 win that gave them a three-games-to-none lead, the Red Sox are one win from their first World Series title in 86 years.

The man who placed the franchise on history's precipice was none other than Pedro Martinez, the enigmatic Red Sox star, who turned in a landmark performance in the first World Series start of his career. Martinez, loser of six of his previous seven starts, tossed seven scoreless innings, retiring the final 14 batters he faced.

The Red Sox have won seven straight postseason games and can win the World Series -- and transport all of New England into unfathomable rapture -- on Wednesday night in Game 4, when Derek Lowe faces St. Louis's Jason Marquis.

No team -- with the possible exception of the New York Yankees -- is as tangibly aware as the Red Sox that a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series is not insurmountable. The Red Sox trailed the Yankees by that margin in the American League Championship Series, only to reel off four straight wins to win the pennant and become the first team in baseball history to pull off such a feat.

"It shows," Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said, "that it's possible."

But while the Red Sox -- with their loosey-goosey flair and their lightning-strike offense -- seemed as well-suited as any to pulling off the monumental task, it is nearly impossible to imagine them pulling the reverse, and actually losing such a lead.

Especially not to a team such as the Cardinals, who won 105 games this season, but who have not led for a single inning in the World Series and who, at times, cannot even seem to run the bases properly or throw strikes to the opposing pitcher.

The Cardinals' formidable trio of sluggers -- Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds -- are hitting a combined .152 with one RBI among them in the Series.

On Tuesday night, it was as if all the Red Sox' awful history has been turned upside down and inverted.

The Cardinals' stunning base-running blunders in the first and third innings -- which cost them an immeasurable number of runs -- were Johnny Pesky's 1946 blunder in reverse.

Martinez, with a performance that evoked the days when he was this overpowering all the time, was the inversion of Bob Gibson, doing to the Cardinals what Gibson did to the Red Sox in 1967.

"Just to see the way [the Cardinals] swung the bats against him," said Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon, "you could tell they didn't really know what was coming."

The only thing lacking was a ground ball trickling between the opposing first baseman's legs.

Game 3 was played before a spirited sea of red, as the faithful of St. Louis, often referred to as the best baseball town in America, turned out for the first World Series game here in 17 years. But the crowd of 52,015 was silenced almost immediately, when Manny Ramirez homered off Jeff Suppan three batters into the game. Suppan would leave in the fifth, having allowed eight hits and four earned runs.

Still, nothing Suppan did on the mound hurt his team as much as what he did on the base paths. In the bottom of the third, after legging out an infield single, Suppan found himself on third base, with Edgar Renteria on second, nobody out, Larry Walker at the plate and the Red Sox' infield prepared to concede a run.

When Walker grounded out to second, Suppan was supposed to break for home. Third base coach Jose Oquendo drove the point home, yelling, "Go! Go!" But Suppan thought he heard "No! No!" So, after first breaking for home, he stopped, retreated to third, stopped, broke for home, stopped, then retreated.

He never made it back to third. David Ortiz -- a designated hitter under AL rules, but manning first base in the NL park -- finally fired a strike across the diamond to third baseman Bill Mueller, who tagged Suppan out easily. In the Cardinals' dugout, La Russa bowed his head and hid his face in his cap.

"I just screwed up," Suppan said, "period."

"Once they didn't score in that inning," Martinez said, "I said, 'It's up to me now.' "

That bit of base-path butchery of Suppan's was preceded two innings earlier by another one. In the bottom of the first, with the bases loaded and one out against Martinez, Jim Edmonds lifted a fly ball to shallow left -- too shallow to score Walker from third. Except that Pujols, the runner on second, was making an inexplicable dash for third. Walker tagged up belatedly, and was nailed easily at the plate by a throw from Ramirez.

"That was huge," Damon said. "If Pedro has a bad first inning, who knows what happens."

The start was not only Martinez's first in a World Series game, but also potentially his last in a Red Sox uniform. Although his aura has been damaged by reduced velocity and increased scrutiny, Martinez at 33 years old and 90 mph was everything he was at 28 and 97.

His performance was vintage Pedro. After escaping that third-inning jam with the assistance of Suppan's base-running blunder, Martinez did not permit another Cardinals hitter to reach base.

"It's been a great ride," Martinez said, his use of the past tense hinting at both the direction of his career and the remarkable piece of history his team has nearly secured. "I hope everybody enjoyed it as much as I did."

Red Sox starting pitcher Pedro Martinez points to the sky as he walks off the field after retiring the Cardinals in the seventh inning of Game 3. Martinez got the win after going seven innings, giving up three hits and no runs.Cardinals' Larry Walker is tagged out by Boston's Jason Varitek at home plate. Walker tried to tag up on a shallow fly to left fielder Manny Ramirez, who fired a one-hop strike to home.