Belliard's defensive gem quells rally
Cardinals second baseman stifles Padres' comeback bid
SAN DIEGO -- Ronnie Belliard laughed that despite seven years as a Major Leaguer, he's still a rookie when it comes to postseason play, but it's doubtful his St. Louis Cardinals teammates see him that way now.Not after Tuesday's 5-1 Redbirds victory over San Diego in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, in which the 31-year-old second baseman banged out two singles, stole a base and scored once, then in a spectacular defensive play saved a run -- and maybe the game -- in the seventh inning. That was a keeper, to be preserved in Cardinals playoff lore. St. Louis was ahead by four runs entering the frame, but starter Chris Carpenter's steam began to fizzle, as the Friars' Russell Branyan boomed a triple to center field, Mike Cameron walked and relief pitcher Tyler Johnson hit pinch-hitter Josh Bard with a pitch. Uh oh. Bases jammed, only one out. After Johnson struck out pinch-hitter Mark Bellhorn, up stepped Todd Walker, who rifled a ball toward the right side, seemingly out of Belliard's reach. But the infielder -- moments before, coach Joe Pettini signaled for him to move to his left -- made the stop and threw in time to nail Walker. "In the clubhouse, the fellows gave Belliard the game ball for that play," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. Center fielder Jim Edmonds, who singled twice, scored a run and played well defensively, spoke for all the Cards after the game about the importance of Belliard's scramble and throw. "Ronnie's play was the play of the year," said Edmonds. "That saved the game for us. If that's a two-run single right there, we're in trouble. We made a little special effort to let Ronnie know how much we appreciated that." Belliard credited the Cardinals coaches, specifically Pettini, for the last-second defensive positioning.
"When he hit it, in my mind it was, 'I gotta get to the ball,'" Belliard said. "I got to it, made a good play. I didn't know we needed that play for the win, but it could have been 5-3."You can never expect to do something like that," said Belliard, who made only three errors in 54 games for the Cardinals this season after a trade from Cleveland. "Like I told the guys, I'm a rookie for the playoffs, but nothing changes. It's still the same game." Belliard knew of the left-handed-batting Walker's tendency to pull the ball and was already shaded toward left, but also took Pettini's advice to move even more. Thankfully. "Joey from the dugout moved me at the right time," Belliard said. "I dived for the ball, it came out of my glove, but I got it and threw to [first baseman Albert] Pujols." It isn't by happenstance that the Cardinals coaches, especially pitching guru Dave Duncan, shift their infielders like so many chess pieces -- knights, not pawns -- for shortstop David Eckstein says video machines run hot and heavy every day to devise defensive strategies. Eckstein and Belliard can move on their own, but there are gut feelings and knowledge that go into where they're positioned. "We made changes on some of their guys today," said Eckstein. "We have the leeway to go either way we want on a pitch." Belliard stands only 5-foot-8 and weighs a solid 197 pounds, but he's quick and smart with great hands. He was batting .291 for Cleveland before a July 30 trade and hit a mere .237 over 54 games -- not that anyone complained. His glove was the critical issue. "I know what I can do and when I can't," said Belliard. "We've got guys here who can hit the ball out of the park, and if I can do my part and contribute to the team, it's good." The defender had little time to savor Tuesday's victory, however, despite saying it was one of his top baseball thrills. "We've gotta come back Thursday and do the same thing," he said. "I always said around these guys that they've been in the World Series before -- they know what they can do." As does Belliard, the Cardinals former postseason "rookie."
Rich Draper is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.