Life of the party
ST. LOUIS – In a clubhouse filled with a Cy Young Award winner (Chris Carpenter), the best player on the planet (Albert Pujols), an eight-time Gold Glove center fielder (Jim Edmonds) and arguably the best third baseman in the National League (Scott Rolen), the lifeblood of the St. Louis Cardinals is easy to underestimate and even easier to overlook.
"He's five-foot-nothing, like me, and he's doing it, winning a World Series," Cardinals second baseman Aaron Miles said. "He's the heart and soul of this ballclub. We're all about fundamentally sound baseball, 110 (percent), give it all you've got, defensive-minded. That's what wins ballgames. That's David Eckstein."
And in a nutshell, that's the Cardinals.
Eckstein had four hits Thursday, including an eighth-inning RBI double off left fielder Craig Monroe's glove that scored Miles with the game-winning run, sending St. Louis to a 5-4 victory over the Detroit Tigers in Game 4 of the World Series and putting them on the brink of their first championship since 1982.
Miles, of course, was being slightly hyperbolic about Eckstein's size. But at 5-foot-7, 165 pounds (with lead-soled platform shoes on), Eckstein's willingness to play through fingers mashed during a bunt attempt and a shoulder strained in a dive endears him to teammates and earns him nods of respect – if not stares of annoyance – from opponents.
"Toughest guy I've ever seen in uniform," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He's the definition of a clutch player."
Eckstein is like a gnat – annoyingly persistent and impossible to deter. Just when you think you're rid of the guy, he's right back in your face, buzzing around your head, fouling off good pitch after good pitch, just waiting for a mistake. He's so vexing at the plate that he even annoys his teammates.
"You just jam him, jam him, jam him, and get him 0-2 and he turns into a foul-ball machine," Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said. "Get him 0-2, and all of a sudden you've thrown seven pitches to him. And then he gets a hit on 3-2, and you've thrown 13 pitches to him. You take a couple at-bats like that, and it really works the pitch count."
Because the honest-faced Eckstein looks more like your paperboy than a professional athlete, it's easy to forget that he's a two-time All-Star who was the catalyst of the then-Anaheim Angels' 2002 championship team.
But because Eckstein always seems to be in the middle of the action, it comes as no surprise that he was involved in the two sequences that decided Game 4.
Leading off the seventh inning with the Cardinals trailing 3-2, Eckstein lofted a routine fly ball to center field. The Tigers' Curtis Granderson started back, and as he tried to change direction to his left, he slipped and fell on the wet Busch Stadium turf, and Eckstein wound up with a gift double.
Next, pinch-hitter So Taguchi bunted. Detroit reliever Fernando Rodney picked the ball up in front of home plate and airmailed the throw over Placido Polanco's head at first base, scoring Eckstein from second to tie the game.
And with the score tied at four in the bottom of the eighth inning, Tigers flamethrower Joel Zumaya on the mound and Miles on second, it was Eckstein who delivered again, doubling just out of the reach of the diving Monroe and scoring Miles with the winning run.
"This is probably the biggest stage that you can be on," Eckstein said. "It's nice to actually have a little luck involved."
Luck or not, those are plays that could have been made, and they may wind up being the difference between the Tigers' glory and their looming insignificance. These Cardinals are not a great team, but like Eckstein, their archetype, they have shown that if you give them the tiniest hole, they will burrow right through.
"You've got to give that guy some credit," Monroe said. "He's not the biggest guy. He ain't the strongest. But he finds ways to grind it out for that team."
"(Eckstein) doesn't give away anything," Cardinals outfielder Preston Wilson said. "He's going to battle you up there, every at-bat, he's going to play outstanding defense. He's one of those guys that all they did was talk about what he can't do for so long … now everybody talks about what he can do."
Wilson could just have easily been talking about the Cardinals themselves. For the majority of the season, the focus was on the club's limitations. Critics snickered at the 83 regular-season wins. Detractors pointed to the lack of offensive production out of everyone not named Pujols. Naysayers couldn't get past the perceived lack of starting pitching depth and the bullpen's inexperience.
Up 3-1 in the World Series, those concerns have been quashed.
"We don't beat ourselves much," Miles said. "We've got a strong group of veteran guys. Jimmy Edmonds, who's a general out in center. (Scott) Rolen, who's probably the best third baseman ever. David Eckstein, who's just the grit and soul of this team. And the best player in the world at first base. That's a strong core."
Despite Eckstein's lack of physical gifts, he has a good enough arm, good enough speed, good enough range and a good enough bat. And now it appears that he and the Cardinals will be good enough in at least one more category: good enough to win a championship.