Cards' middle men step up

Cards' middle men step up

ST. LOUIS -- Here go the St. Louis Cardinals again, trampling over anything even vaguely resembling a negative expectation.

The Cardinals have been at their best the last two nights in the marquee Interleague matchup against the Boston Red Sox, winning 7-1 and 9-2. These two victories can't make up for that Boston sweep in the 2004 World Series. But they will serve to illustrate a point about the Cardinals' renewed strength this season.

The 2004 Cardinals, at least pre-October, were baseball's best team with 105 victories. They returned their imposing core of run producers. They returned four members of an already sturdy starting rotation and added Mark Mulder. So where was the big drop-off from 105 victories supposed to occur?

Conventional wisdom had it that the Cardinals would be diminished in the middle infield, where shortstop Edgar Renteria and second baseman Tony Womack departed to be replaced by David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek. A very common thought was that Renteria was superior to Eckstein in nearly every facet of the game. And at second, the Cardinals would lose range and speed.

So why, through 58 games, 38 of them victories, has the middle infield appeared to be much more like a strength than a weakness for the Cardinals? Because conventional wisdom didn't quite get it.

Grudzielanek is, flatly, a better overall defensive second baseman than Womack. He is sure-handed and possesses a much stronger arm. Manager Tony La Russa contended Monday night that Grudzielanek threw the ball as well as any second baseman in the history of the game. Even if you don't want to go quite that far, on the issue of arm strength, Womack vs. Grudzielanek is no contest.

Grudzielanek is also a better hitter than Womack, with more pop and a higher average, now, over time, and in general. He is hitting .320 this season. You give Womack the obvious edge in foot speed, noting, though, that Grudzielanek is no statue. He has 122 career stolen bases, including five in five attempts this season.

Grudzielanek made a statement for the St. Louis defense in both of these victories over Boston. He made a sensational play to throw out Jay Payton on Monday night.

On Tuesday night, Johnny Damon opened the game with a single, and he was moving on a pitch that Renteria grounded to short. Damon was on Grudzielanek immediately, dumping him, but Grudzielanek stood in as long as he needed to, and still delivered a hard, accurate throw to first. The Cardinals had a double play and the Red Sox had no inning. It was yet another indication of the kind of hard-nosed player that Mark Grudzielanek is; the ideal sort for the Cardinals.

At short, Eckstein has outplayed Renteria the last two nights both in the field and at the plate. Eckstein had five hits in the two games. Renteria had one. Eckstein has fielded flawlessly. Renteria made a costly error Monday night.

This is very interesting, particularly given the fact that, after six years in St. Louis, Renteria left for Boston and a more lucrative offer. But this series does not come down to a question of which shortstop has the better three games. And it is still reasonable to say that Renteria is the better player by any number of objective measurements. But you could say that in a comparison between Renteria and the vast majority of Major League shortstops.

   David Eckstein  /   SS
Born: 01/20/75
Height: 5'7"
Weight: 165 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R

Eckstein has committed nine errors this season, more than his total in either of the last two years. But his overall defense has still been sound. He is hitting .315 with an on-base percentage of .389 and this season, not uncharacteristically, he has been the hardest hitter to strike out in the Major Leagues.

Plus, with Eckstein, you get this image, in fact this reality, of a small fellow, compensating with every beat of his heart by producing an all-out effort all the time. "When a guy is playing that hard, it makes your whole club look better," La Russa says.

When someone makes a positive comment about Eckstein's performance, his standard response is " that's my job." So what if he is only 5-foot-7 inches tall? His ego is microscopic.

He has had to say "That's my job" a lot lately. He is hitting .395 over the last 10 games. He is also hitting .395 with runners in scoring position for the season. If he is not Renteria, he is still very much what the Cardinals need in this role.

"That's my job," Eckstein said. "The one thing we try to do is keep constant pressure on the opposition. It's preached here and we try to do it."

Both Eckstein and Grudzielanek contributed RBIs and runs scored in the four-run St. Louis second inning that sent the Cardinals toward a victory. There was also the matter of the four double plays that the Cardinals turned. This performance left them a season-high 18 games above .500.

"We've got to keep pushing forward," Eckstein said. "We can't let up. It's way too early. This club has done a great job of having [a chip] on its shoulder every time we step on the field and we cannot lose that. We've got to keep pushing."

That thing about the Cardinals losing ground at the middle infield spots? Politely stated, it's wrong, it's erroneous, it's way off base, it's a myth. Didn't happen, isn't happening, won't happen.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.