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Eckstein receives warm welcome

Times Staff Writer

Toronto shortstop David Eckstein, the heart and soul of the Angels’ 2002 World Series championship team, got a warm welcome from the crowd Friday in his first trip back to Anaheim since leaving for St. Louis as a free agent following the 2004 season.

“I’m happy to be back in front of these fans,” said Eckstein, who drew many in the crowd to their feet when he came to the plate in the second inning.

“The fan support that I got here was unbelievable. It made it very comfortable for me to come out here and play every single night.”

But Eckstein, who made two All-Star teams and won another title in St. Louis before leaving for Toronto as a free agent last December, admitted Friday’s homecoming was somewhat bittersweet.

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“Everyone knows I loved playing here and I love this place,” Eckstein said. “So it’s definitely a little bit of an emotional type of thing, coming in here. When you pull into the parking and then see the field, it definitely brings back all the memories and all the good times that I had here.”

The best memory, not surprisingly, was Darin Erstad’s catch to end the 2002 World Series, giving the Angels their only championship. But it was Eckstein who made the final putouts in the division series and American League Championship Series.

“That was pretty special,” he said. “I still have both those baseballs.”

Dismissed as too small to play in college, much less professionally, the 5-foot-7 Eckstein became a two-time All-Southeastern Conference player at Florida and a two-time All-Star with two championship rings and a World Series MVP award in the majors.

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“Eck’s always been a guy who’s beaten any odds that have been laid out for him,” said Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, who had a long pregame chat with Eckstein behind the batting cage Friday. “He’s truly an inspiration. He’s got an incredible passion for this game. And he’s turned out to be a heck of a baseball player.”

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Chone Figgins, who played once since tweaking his hamstring sliding home May 3, returned to the disabled list Friday to create a roster spot for Howie Kendrick.

The Angels activated Figgins 10 days ago, when Erick Aybar went out because of a dislocated finger. But he irritated a tendon in his right leg his first day back.

“I don’t see it as a mistake,” Scioscia said of the decision to play Figgins last week. “Hindsight, yeah, he irritated a little different part of his hamstring than what was the original injury. [But] we’re still comfortable with the progression and how the decision was made.”

The Angels are hoping Figgins can start running again this weekend, which would allow him to return to normal baseball activities. But Scioscia said the infielder would be sent out on a minor league rehab assignment before being activated this time. He’s eligible to return June 6.

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Francisco Rodriguez has a major league-leading 21 saves.

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But they haven’t all been easy ones.

In fact Rodriguez, who has blown only one save opportunity, has faced the minimum number of batters only 10 times and his career-high 1.35 walks/hits per innings pitched is much higher than his average of 1.05 in his first four big league seasons, when he twice led the league in saves.

“Once he gets comfortable on the mound, his game comes together,” Scioscia said. “Sometimes it takes a couple of pitches, sometimes eight to 10. It probably heightens your awareness to give him enough room to work if you’re bringing him in.”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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