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The longest inch

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

ST. LOUIS – Game 4 of the 2006 World Series was not a game of inches. It was a game of an inch. It was a game in which Detroit Tigers left fielder Craig Monroe propelled himself toward a fly ball and felt it ricochet off the tip of his glove, and how he ever wished baseball allowed a model an inch longer. It was a game in which the man 100 feet to Monroe’s left, center fielder Curtis Granderson, eased back on a fly ball, planted his feet and felt the ground give out, and when he came back to see what happened, there it was, a divot about an inch deep.

Balls and strikes and plays at the plate and everything in baseball, really, boils down to tiny slivers of space, and every player understands that. And still, the Tigers couldn’t help but pine for that extra inch Thursday night, not after its absence time and again facilitated their downfall in a 5-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, who now hold a 3-1 series lead and could win their 10th championship Friday night at Busch Stadium.

“You saw it first-hand,” Granderson said. “Add a half-inch to Monroe’s glove and he makes that play. I go ahead and plant an inch instep, keep my feet underneath me a little more, go ahead and stay up and catch that ball routine. Who knows what happens after that?”

Granderson, or anyone, for that matter, could have slapped the game-winning hit, and music could have pumped from the speakers in the Tigers’ clubhouse, and the series could be tied, with at least another game in Detroit guaranteed. Instead, they were left to wonder and wallow in silence, and the pain of an “if” leaves the kind of sting no antihistamine can alleviate.

Not when each instance proved so critical. Down 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh inning, the Cardinals led off the inning with David Eckstein, who always seemed to show up at the worst times for the Tigers. On Fernando Rodney’s third pitch, Eckstein sent a routine fly ball to center field, one toward which the speedy Granderson glided. As he planted to adjust his line toward the ball, the grass – deluged by nearly two consecutive days of rain – separated from the dirt, and Granderson tumbled. By the time he recovered, Eckstein was on his way to second base, and he scored when So Taguchi’s sacrifice bunt turned into a two-base throwing error by Rodney.

An inning later, with Aaron Miles at second base, in stepped Eckstein again. Because the grass was acting like anti-lock brakes on ground balls, Monroe shaded in so he could have a better play at home. Anyway, Monroe figured, the 5-foot-7, 165-pound Eckstein might be the least likely player in the stadium to hit a ball toward the gap. Of Eckstein’s seven extra-base hits at Busch during the regular season, four were down the left-field line and three down the right-field line, and he’d made only 13 outs on fly balls to left-center.

So, naturally, Eckstein put a charge into a Joel Zumaya pitch, and the ball faded from Monroe. He’d gotten a late jump, surprised like the rest of the 46,470 in the stands, and made up the distance quickly.

“He came out of nowhere,” Cardinals closer Adam Wainwright said. “That ball was in the gap. He looked like Superman.”

In the end, Monroe was more Clark Kent, a mortal bound by his body, and it happened to be one that could not stretch far enough. It was a valiant effort, only valiance and effort could not prevent Miles from scoring the winning run.

“I knew it was going to be a tough play when he hit it,” Monroe said. “I wouldn’t change anything about that play. You know, game of inches.”

Inch, he meant.

“From all over, too,” said Tigers first baseman Sean Casey, whose home run and RBI single helped Detroit to a 3-0 lead. “Hitting. Fielding. You see it. (Brandon) Inge was saying that ball (Yadier) Molina hit down the line was 2 inches away from his glove.

“Unfortunately, the inches were against us.”

While Molina’s double in the fourth inning brought the Cardinals to within 3-2, it was long forgotten by the end of the game. The Tigers were lamenting lost opportunity, the Cardinals thanking their respective deities for found chances, both sides echoing the phrase “That’s baseball” like it was some kind of balm.

“Anytime you feel like you’re that close it’s tougher,” Cardinals outfielder Preston Wilson said. “The effort on their side was there. I don’t think in any way they did anything wrong. The ball just kind of kept going away from Craig.

“I’ve been on the other side of being in the outfield and slipping. You can do everything right out there, the ground comes from under your feet and there’s nothing you can do. It’s a very helpless feeling.”

The same one that 38 years ago harried Curt Flood … at the old Busch Stadium … on the day after a rainout … in a World Series game … during the seventh inning … against the Tigers. Flood, the Cardinals’ center fielder, slipped while retreating on a Jim Northrup fly ball to center field, and the miscue led to the Tigers’ third championship.

Detroit had come back from a 3-1 deficit in that series, giving these Tigers a branch onto which they can hold, even if it’s attached to a dying tree. As Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols said, “This is not 1968. This is 2006.”

And in 2006, everything is going the Cardinals’ way.

“Are you stunned a little bit? Are you down a little bit? Of course,” Monroe said. “That’s obvious. At the same time, you’ve got to refocus and get ready to play the game.

“That’s what this seven-game series is about. Laying all out.”

Maybe so. Monroe, as evidenced Thursday, will sacrifice himself to make a play. Whether the series will reach seven games is a prospect that dims by the day, by the game and by that inch Detroit just can’t seem to find.