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10/18/05 1:37 AM ET

Eckstein starts fateful rally in ninth

Leadoff man singles with Cardinals down to last strike

HOUSTON -- Down to his last strike against one of the game's best closers with the din of a packed house at Minute Maid Park reaching a jet-engine decibel level, David Eckstein had the Cardinals' season in his hands.

Of all the emotions one might think were coursing through his body, the one he says was overwhelming him might not be the first one that springs to mind.

"It's pretty calming to step to the plate in that situation," the Cardinals' 5-foot-7 leadoff man said. "I have no idea, no reason why."

And right there is your ultimate calm before the storm.

Facing a 1-and-2 count against Astros closer Brad Lidge, Eckstein delivered a single through the left side of the infield to keep the Cardinals alive in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. Then, after Jim Edmonds drew a walk to bring superstar slugger Albert Pujols to the plate, Pujols blasted a three-run homer to give the Cardinals an amazing 5-4 victory that sends the NLCS back to St. Louis.

Pujols' blast was a colossal shot. But Pujols' heroic swat couldn't have happened without Eckstein's dribbling grounder to left field.

You can't color anybody in the Cardinals clubhouse surprised that their little big man came through with the game-saving single when it couldn't possibly have counted more.

"He's tied for first with the toughest competitor in uniform today, in any sport, and he managed to get the single," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.

Even getting to that point was a trial for Eckstein on Monday night. He was struck in the left elbow by an Andy Pettitte pitch to start the game, a shot that raised a knot on his arm -- but you couldn't tell by the way he sprinted down the first-base line after being struck. In his second at-bat, he fouled a ball off his left knee, raising a knot there, too. But he singled and scored the Cardinals' first run in the third inning after that blow.

From the brink
Five teams have won postseason games after being one out away from elimination.
2005 NLCS, Game 5: Cardinals 5, Astros 4
*1992 NLCS Game 7, Braves 3, Pirates 2
*1986 World Series, Game 6: Mets 6, Red Sox 5
*1986 ALCS, Game 5: Red Sox 7, Angels 6
1911 World Series, Game 5: Giants 4, Athletics 3
*=Team would go on to win series.

Then came the ninth, and Eckstein had a mental plan that would turn out to work marvelously.

"The one thing I didn't want to do was to get any type of jumpiness, any type of anything into my body besides just focus on the baseball," Eckstein said.

When it came down to two strikes, Eckstein wasn't feeling anything but relaxed, even if he and everyone else in Minute Maid Park was engulfed in a cauldron of sound and tension.

"They were so loud, and so just stepping to the plate, just understanding it's you versus him, and that's all that really matters at that point," Eckstein said. "You know, just find a way. Once again, it wasn't pretty. It found a hole. We're just fortunate it was a hit."

And the Cardinals were fortunate to have a guy at the plate who could turn the most intense pressure situation into a relaxed setting for hitting.

Teammate Larry Walker, who has seen his share of pressure situations over the course of his 17-plus years in the big leagues, knows Eckstein's frame of mind had a lot to do with his ability to come through in that situation.

"It's tough to believe he was calm, because he's such a hyper little bugger," Walker said. "He's hyper, but he's a very focused individual. He's focused from the first pitch to the last pitch, so I couldn't doubt that's what he was feeling.

"I know [Sunday] night against Lidge, I had a 3-2 count and I actually felt really relaxed," Walker explained. "I didn't hear much. Everything just kind of felt right. You have at-bats in those situations when you feel that way."

La Russa said that's what the great competitors do, and in Eckstein's first year in St. Louis, the Cardinals have found that's exactly what Eckstein is.

"I remember when Will Clark came here in 2002 and he had a great piece of advice for some of the guys going a little nuts," La Russa said. "He just said, 'Remember to breathe, you've got to remember to breathe.' In the end, David has been there, he's committed to it, and he looked like he was just having his best at-bat."

And, thanks in large part to that at-bat by Eckstein, the Cardinals are still breathing.

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.