ST. LOUIS -- The chicks don't dig it like the long ball and it doesn't score zillionaire free agent contracts like pitching, but look what defense has done for the St. Louis Cardinals.
They have a stranglehold on their National League Division Series with the San Diego Padres after a 6-2 win in Game 2 on Thursday, as much because they can catch and throw as anything.
"It's something we've been proud of since Day 1, it's a lot of fun," said shortstop David Eckstein, who touched all four double plays as the Cardinals defense bailed starting pitcher Mark Mulder out of jams in each inning from the fourth through the seventh. "I think you have to give a lot of credit to Mulder. He let some runners on, but he was able to get the ground ball when he needed it."
The four double plays tied an NLDS single-game record and went one better than Tuesday's Game 1, when the St. Louis defense turned three double plays in support of Chris Carpenter. Looks like a trend.
"People might not recognize how important it is and it might not be as exciting as hitting home runs, but in here we know," said second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. "Those are huge plays for us. We take a lot of pride in that and we've worked hard, right from the start of Spring Training, because we had to. We had to learn each other."
That's because last year's shortstop, Edgar Renteria, signed as a free agent with Boston, and general manager Walt Jocketty replaced him by grabbing Eckstein, who was non-tendered by the Angels.
"We think defense is extremely important, especially with our pitching staff," said Jocketty. "Our pitchers throw a lot of ground balls and we try to find guys who can catch the ball. After the Angels signed Orlando Cabrera, we knew Eckstein would be there and we went after him. Our defense has turned out as good as we thought it would be."
Manager Tony La Russa said he saw it coming together in March.
"I really liked what I was seeing in the middle of the field," La Russa said. "Dave gets to the ball, he feeds it quick. Mark's real quick releasing it, a strong arm and vice versa, and they both have no fear, so it's the way we played all year long. I mean, the total was there, and you know, our pitchers are not afraid to pitch to contact and hopefully get a ground ball."
The Cardinals led the National League turning double plays, but it didn't come without a lot of work. Infield coach Jose Oquendo made the double-play combination a project from the start of Spring Training.
"We still work at it maybe three times a week," said Eckstein. "And we don't just go through the motions, we pretend it's game situations. We try to turn double plays on every opportunity, even if it seems like we have no chance, and let the umpire decide. Grud wants to turn every one. He's such a competitor. I had heard he's not that good an infielder. You watch him and he's a Gold Glove winner to me."
Eckstein started the first two double plays, a grounder by Joe Randa with no outs after Khalil Greene's leadoff single in the fourth inning and a bouncer by Eric Young that ended the fifth inning after Damian Jackson's pinch-hit single.
"We have many different ways to beat you," said Eckstein.
The slickest one might have been the one that ended the sixth inning, a 3-6-3 variety started and finished by first baseman Albert Pujols after Ramon Hernandez's one-out single.
"Our infield has played unbelievable defense all year," said Pujols. "If we can't score enough runs, we'll play defense. Everything wins in this game."
The biggest double play came in the seventh inning, after San Diego had cut the St. Louis lead to 4-1 on a leadoff double by Greene, a single by Randa and an RBI single by Xavier Nady. But pinch-hitter Miguel Olivo bounced to Grudzielanek, who started the fourth double play, all on the same Mulder pitch -- a sinker down and away.
Mulder, who shook off a second-inning line drive that smoked his pitching arm, praised his infield.
"I like using my defense, you know?" Mulder said. "I'm not going to get that mad about giving up a hit because you make one good pitch, the next pitch, you get a double play. And our defense, you know, Eck, the couple he turned with Grudzielanek and the one for Albert, those were huge for me."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.