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MANNY PASSES FIELD TEST WITH FLYING COLORS

Granted, Boston's Manny Ramirez isn't much as far as left fielders go. He has the range of a monotone. His throws have been known to spray like champagne. He can turn even a routine play into rip-roaringly comedic adventure, as he did while jamming his spike in the turf and botching a catch during Game One of the 100th World Series.

That said, you still have to wonder what the St. Louis Cardinals were thinking in the first inning Tuesday night, during what proved to be a pivotal moment in their 4-1 Game Three loss to the Red Sox.

It would have been understandable had the Cards challenged Ramirez's arm on a play that required he scoop and throw. You could see them trying to score Larry Walker from third on a momentum-killing fly ball that held Ramirez in his tracks. But on a rainbow that pulled him almost within spitting distance of the plate, granting him forward thrust? That's an insult, an attack on a player's pride, and Ramirez left the Cards ruing their misguided courage.

Walker's mad dash drew a perfect 220-foot throw from Ramirez, resulted in an inning-ending double play and took a bases-loaded at-bat away from Reggie Sanders, St. Louis' No. 6 hitter. The blunder was another sampling of what's become standard World Series fare for the Cards, whose poor fundamental play has tarnished their major-league high 105-win regular season.

A misread by Sanders cost the Cardinals a base, and maybe a run, earlier in the series. Starter Jeff Suppan, a pitcher accustomed to running the bases, denied St. Louis a run and a potentially big uprising in the third Tuesday night, bumbling his way into a double play after failing to break from third on a mildly hit ground ball to second base. The Red Sox, the game early, their infield deep, would gladly have conceded the run.

Uncharacteristic? Maybe for these Cards, but not for a Series team managed by Tony La Russa. This is the third time a La Russa club has come up small after a huge regular season. His heavily favored Oakland A's won 104 games in '88 and then were beaten in five by the Dodgers. The A's put up 103 victories in '90 and then were swept by the Reds. Makes you wonder if his all-business style wears on his troops, tightening their collars over the long haul. It's clear that the Red Sox, although burdened by 86 years of unrealized expectations, are the looser club, an extension of their self-deprecating first-year manager, Terry Francona.

"Has anybody here seen me play as a player," Francona responded when asked how he felt about 3-0. "You'd understand why I could never be overconfident."

Everything's going Boston's way, which has to have the Beantown faithful bracing in anticipation of a catastrophic reversal. But something like Ramirez beating a team with his defense has to have them thinking that, suicidal tendencies notwithstanding, their Red Sox can't possibly squander a 3-0 advantage in the Series.

The knock on Ramirez has been that there are only four ways he can beat you: single, double, triple or homer. He's a run-producing machine, the most dangerous overall hitter in the American League. But the other facets of his game, including his attitude, have been detrimental to the health of a team. The Red Sox tried to trade him before the season, couldn't find a taker.

"I wasn't mad or nothing," Ramirez said of the deal gone awry, which explains why he's still in Boston and Nomar Garciaparra isn't.

Ramirez has been a hitting machine throughout the postseason, although not in customary fashion. His playoff hitting streak, which extends from last season, is one shy of 17, the record shared by Hank Bauer and Derek Jeter. Atypically, he went the whole ALCS without driving in a run, hadn't homered since facing Anaheim in the divisional series.

Ramirez brought it all to Busch Stadium, flashed multiple dimensions. His first-inning solo homer off Suppan allowed Pedro Martinez to take the mound with a lead already in hand. Then he protected the advantage by nailing Walker with the throw the Cards carelessly wagered was beyond his capabilities.

"Manny has a good arm and people look at all the other things and forget that," Boston center fielder Johnny Damon said. "But he showed it in a big spot."

Francona was thinking right along with the Cardinals as Jim Edmonds lifted the ball into shallow left. Ramirez had butchered that play in Fenway, sliding unnecessarily. With him you never know quite what to expect. No wonder Francona couldn't wait to talk about Ramirez's Game Three redemption.

"I'd love to!," Francona said. "First of all he kept his feet . . ."

Martinez makes two.

"I was really happy to see Manny not even thinking about what happened at Fenway, and being able to come up with a big throw and a very good throw to put somebody out in a key situation," Martinez said.

Make it seven in a row for the Red Sox, matching the longest winning streak within a single postseason. One more win and 1918 becomes just another year. Never has the Curse of the Bambino faced a bigger challenge.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com