Padres’ David Eckstein has made ‘little’ go a long way
If David Eckstein is right, if players like him are an endangered species because computer-generated calculations can’t quantify the value of hustling and the little things he does so well, baseball will be the poorer for it.
If there’s no room for someone like the San Diego Padres’ second baseman, the ultimate little guy with a big heart and a winning influence on every team whose dirt-stained uniform he has worn, the sport will lose a piece of its soul.
“The style of game I play is definitely well against all the new-age baseball guys. A place in this game is not going to be very long for me, the way I play, because it’s not what everyone that’s getting power would want to see,” he said.
“They want to see the numbers. They want to see stuff that translates on paper. I don’t translate to paper.”
It says on paper that he’s only 5 feet 7 and 175 pounds. That he has no power, with 35 home runs in 10 seasons. That he doesn’t steal many bases anymore — seven this season — and isn’t getting on base as much as he used to, with a .325 on-base percentage this season but a respectable .346 for his career.
He’s a choke-up-on-the-bat, hit-behind-the-runner singles hitter with an arm that’s not the world’s strongest. He plays second base by positioning and studying opposing hitters and somehow gets to the right place at the right time. He’s always alert and sharing information with teammates, a quality appreciated by his manager, Bud Black.
“I’ve noticed my last two years here with Eck, he has taken on more of a vocal role from the team’s standpoint that I might not have seen in the early 2000s with Anaheim,” said Black, the Angels’ pitching coach when Eckstein broke into the big leagues.
Good thing Eckstein ignores all the negative numbers.
“Not to sound cocky but I knew I could do it,” said Eckstein, who has a .281 career batting average and is the only infielder in the major leagues this season who has played at least 70 games without an error.
“I needed someone to believe in me and I had that along the way, also.”
Eckstein, 35, is also a two-time World Series champion — in 2002 with the Angels and again in 2006 with the St. Louis Cardinals, when he was voted the Series’ most valuable player. He’s a two-time All-Star and was the National League’s starting All-Star shortstop in 2005.
In a recent poll of 313 major league players conducted by Sports Illustrated, Eckstein was chosen the player who had gotten the most out of his talent. He got 25% of the votes, well ahead of the 13% earned by Boston’s Dustin Pedroia.
No room in the game for David Eckstein?
“I hope that’s not the case,” Black said recently. “He’s a baseball player with talent. One thing I think gets overlooked: he can play. He’s got talent and some of the things he does, he does a lot better than a lot of players in this league.”
Talking about Eckstein brought a smile to Black’s face, and Black hasn’t had a whole lot to smile about lately.
The Padres, who open a three-game series against the Dodgers on Tuesday in Chavez Ravine, have lost six of their last 10 games and 17 of their last 24 — including a 10-game losing streak — since they built a season-high 6 1/2-game lead on Aug. 25. They were bumped out of first place by the San Francisco Giants last Thursday, jumped back on top for a day but fell a half-game out Sunday after they lost at St. Louis and the Giants won.
Yet, in all the gloom the Padres may have reasons for optimism.
First, they’re playing the Dodgers, whom they swept Sept. 6-7-8. Eckstein’s crafty seven-pitch at-bat in the seventh inning, resulting in a sacrifice fly against Jonathan Broxton, provided the insurance run in the series-opening 4-2 victory, which ended that 10-game skid.
“When we win, Eck seems to do something in that game to help us win,” Black said, “whether it’s a hit, a play in the field, something he says on the field to a defender. To a teammate. Or something he says in the dugout.”
And Eckstein, who missed 28 games because of a calf strain and was struggling at the plate, has perked up. He has hits in five straight games, going eight for 20 in that span with three runs batted in and three runs scored. In his last 10 games he’s 11 for 35 (.314) with four RBIs and four runs. Overall, he’s batting .275.
Plus, he has experience with team slumps, having endured two eight-game losing streaks and a seven-game skid with the 2006 Cardinals. He knows that although things appear bleak, they can turn around quickly for a team or a player, as he proved in 2006 by batting .364 in the World Series after batting only .133 in the NL division series against the Padres and .231 in the NL Championship Series against the New York Mets.
“We weren’t healthy. It was just getting everybody back,” he said of injuries to closer Jason Isringhausen, outfielder Jim Edmonds and his own oblique muscle pull. “We had guys that were not able to go out there and we had other guys that were battling stuff. It was a whole list of things. Whatever could go wrong, did.
“Making the playoffs changed that. If the season went two more games we probably wouldn’t have made it. Once the season was over and we were in the playoffs it was a new start.”
Eckstein said that, like his strong points, the Padres’ strengths don’t translate to paper.
“We will battle. We will fight. And we will play the game the right way,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll find a way and what we’ve done the first five months will show.”