Eckstein making mark on postseason
Shortstop hits big homer in Game 3 of NLDS
ST. LOUIS -- It may be the most remarkable thing about the 2005 Cardinals. Every key player they lost from 2004, they replaced superbly.
Woody Williams was replaced by Mark Mulder, who emerged as the Cards' clear No. 2 starter. Mike Matheny walked out the door, and Yadier Molina stepped right in and will be a challenger to Matheny for a Gold Glove. Mark Grudzielanek played exceptional defense and had a fine year at the plate in Tony Womack's stead. Gone is Kiko Calero, but Al Reyes filled his innings beautifully.
And then there's the shortstop position. The Cardinals' unofficial captain, Edgar Renteria, left in what was likely the most agonizing decision the front office made last winter. Renteria took a four-year deal to play for Boston, leaving a hole in the clubhouse and on the field.
But as soon as the Angels cut ties with their own heart-and-soul shortstop, the Redbirds knew who they wanted to step into Renteria's spot. St. Louis swooped in and signed David Eckstein to a three-year contract. And he has been nothing short of an exceptional addition thus far.
Eckstein enjoyed a career year at the plate in the regular season, setting or equaling personal bests in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, doubles, triples and walks. With the exception of a brief funk in May, he played outstanding defense, helping St. Louis set a franchise record in double plays.
Now the sparkplug is making his mark on the postseason. Eckstein, who won a World Series with Anaheim in 2002, went 5-for-13 (.385) in the Redbirds' Division Series win over San Diego, hitting a home run, driving in four runs and scoring three times. His two-run long ball in Game 3 was the game's biggest hit. And while outside observers have been caught off guard by what Eckstein has done, his teammates have not.
"I know the heart of David," said outfielder Reggie Sanders. "I played [against] him in the World Series in 2002. I know that he's a feisty, tough guy. He has this relentless attitude. It doesn't surprise me what he's doing."
One element of Eckstein's game may be a surprise, and it's one that hearkens back to Renteria's days wearing the "birds on the bat." Eckstein has been lethal when given RBI chances this year. He led the National League in batting with runners in scoring position at .373.
Eckstein carries exactly the kind of attitude that manager Tony La Russa and Cardinals management crave in players. He grows visibly uncomfortable when he's asked about himself. He'd honestly rather go 0-for-5 with a win than 4-for-4 in a loss. And he never, ever looks ahead.
So he took a moment to enjoy the sweep of the Padres, but he didn't get crazy about it.
"Whenever you suit up and play in any type of competition, you want to win it all," he said. "I don't care what it is. So definitely, that's our focus. But we've still got a long way to go."
And he certainly wasn't looking for a home run on Saturday night at PETCO Park. Eckstein has strengthened his arm and his hitting this year, but he's at his best when he hits low line drives and pokes grounders through the hole.
"It was one of those things that I was just trying to get a pitch, and hit an extra-base hit, with a man on first with two outs," he said. "[I was] just fortunate enough that I was able to hit it and get it out of the park.
"I got him 2-0. I usually don't swing that much. I was looking for a pitch kind of just over the middle, trying to get a fastball in. Fortunately enough, I was able to get it and put a good swing on it."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.