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David beats Goliath

Little man Eckstein wins fabled at-bat with Zumaya

Posted: Friday October 27, 2006 3:04AM; Updated: Friday October 27, 2006 3:10AM
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ST. LOUIS -- Should you ever lose your faith in baseball, or simply the belief that what is possible is limited only by your imagination, just roll the tape of David Eckstein batting against Joel Zumaya in the eighth inning of a tied World Series Game 4 on Thursday night. What is most beautiful about baseball -- its timeless democracy, giving opportunity to all -- was reaffirmed in that one Series-changing at-bat. It defined not only Eckstein, but an entire Cardinals team that has rebounded from a September collapse that threatened to out-bomb the '64 Phillies all the way to within one win from the franchise's first world championship is almost a quarter of a century.

"He's the heart and soul of this ballclub," second baseman Aaron Miles said.

Eckstein is 5-foot-7, 165 pounds, as clean-scrubbed as a Cub Scout at inspection, and was let go by the Angels after the 2004 season without the team even offering him a contract. Zumaya is 6-foot-3, is charitably listed at 210 pounds, wears a flame tattoo on his left arm and a menacing goatee on his chin, sports a bloodshot right eye and throws a baseball harder than any man alive. You half expect him to ride a Harley out of the bullpen to the mound.

And Eckstein vs. Zumaya was a mismatch. No contest.

In what other sport would such a duel be so one-sided in favor of the guy who barely qualifies for a razor or some rides at Disneyland? Yes, Eckstein schooled Zumaya, turned around his 100-mph heater for what stood as the game-winning hit. You had to see it to appreciate the beauty with which Eckstein seized control of the at-bat.

"I tell me friends he's one of the most clutch players I've ever seen," Cardinals closer Adam Wainwright said. "Every time he comes up with a runner on you know he's going to give you a great at-bat. There are many guys who have greater tools who don't come near being the player David Eckstein is."

The 102nd World Series finally gave us a gem of a baseball game, however unsightly it might have been at times. Tigers pitchers kept throwing balls to bases as if they were blindfolded and Tigers centerfielder Curtis Granderson turned a routine out -- by that pest Eckstein, of course -- into a rally-starting double when he flat out fell in centerfield, as if tripping over a curb somebody just happened to freshly lay in the outfield.

But great baseball games, no matter the oddities, always come down to that classic duel between pitcher and batter, a duel in which size does not matter, lest you consider the magnitude of a person's heart.

Miles was standing at second base with two outs in the eighth, having advanced there on an unforgivable sloppy play by catcher Ivan Rodriguez on a swinging third strike by Juan Encarnacion. Rodriguez let the breaking ball bounce clean through his legs, putting the go-ahead run into scoring position.

With the runner at second base instead of first, leftfielder Craig Monroe cheated a few steps closer to the infield from what would have been his normal depth, defending against a possible play at the plate.

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