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IN NEED OF A SLINGSHOT What are those words of comfort in times of suffering? Ah . . . that which does not kill us, makes us stronger. The message has an added chill in this emotionally draining season of St. Louis baseball. The 2002 Cardinals have had to overcome the deaths of Jack Buck and Darryl Kile, myriad injuries to their pitching staff, a first-round playoffdose of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, and a debilitating blow to their All-Star third baseman. All for the privilege of facing the greatest player of this era with the finest supporting cast said player has ever enjoyed. Down two games to Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Goliaths, er, Giants, the Cardinals now head to the Bay Area needing to take two of three just to get the series back to St. Louis. Based on what we’ve seen in the first two tilts of the National League Championship Series, St. Louis sports fans may need to start reserving their hockey tickets. There were no flukes in the Giants’ pair of victories at Busch Stadium. Despite his histrionics, Kenny Lofton played Game 1 like it was 1995 and he was still the best leadoff man in the sport. St. Louis ace Matt Morris was so preoccupied with not allowing the mighty Bonds to do his usual destruction that he forgot there were eight other men in gray carrying lumber. A simple rule of postseason baseball: if your ace doesn’t show up, it’s time to pack the bags. Woody Williams gallantly took the hill for the Cards in Game 2, having sat for three weeks with a painful muscle strain in his abdomen. Aside from a pair of mistakes to Giant shortstop Rich Aurilia -- each of which landed on the wrong side of the leftfield wall -- Williams matched up nicely with the overpowering San Francisco righty, Jason Schmidt. (Is there any end to the pitching talent that springs from Atlanta’s well?) Bonds was held in check, striking out twice and even dropping a Jim Edmonds flyball in the ninth inning. (The official scorer ruled it a double for Edmonds, though Bonds has several gold gloves on his mantlE that say he should have caught the ball.) The pesky Lofton was hitless in four at bats, but may have had the play of the game anyway, when he gunned down J.D. Drew trying to score what would have been the tying run on a short flyout in the third inning. Who will need to step up for the ‘Birds to remain in flight in Frisco? Start with Tino Martinez. The love-fest between Cardinal Nation and the well-grounded, team-first former Yankee leader is over. He’s being paid far too much to provide exactly one hit in five playoff games (read: zero protection for Albert Pujols with the sore shouldered Scott Rolen on the bench). It’s a lineup shift Tony LaRussa would never make, but it could be argued the Cardinals would be better off with Pujols moved to first and the versatile Eli Marrero placed in leftfield. Needless to say, veteran hurlers Chuck Finley and Andy Benes will also have to be at their best for St. Louis to keep this series alive. They’ll be facing the Giants’ Russ Ortiz and Livan Hernandez, respectively. Ortiz has already won a do-or-die battle with the Braves, and Hernandez -- he of the 1997 Marlins -- has a World Series MVP trophy to his credit. Finley and Benes are unlikely to be caught up in the moment as Morris was in Game 1. They’re each a thinking-man’s pitcher, sent out by a thinking-man’s manager. But will their fastballs snap? Their curveballs zip? Dating back to Game 5 of the 1996 NLCS, St. Louis has now lost nine of its last 10 contests in baseball’s penultimate playoff round. Different casts of characters, certainly different pitchers have yielded the same results against the Braves, Mets (2000), and Giants. Down two games on foreign soil, LaRussa and company will be in search of inspiration, which shouldn’t be hard to find in this tear-stained campaign. After all, this is baseball . . . not life and death.

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