Cardinals shortstop leading the charge

ST. LOUIS -- David Eckstein is so small, frail and innocent-looking, Madonna might try to adopt him any day now.

Then you see him gritting his teeth through the aches and pains, fouling off tough pitches and laying out for balls in the hole, and it's evident just how consumed he is with making sure he wins and you lose. There's nothing particularly warm and fuzzy about that.

Eckstein's St. Louis teammates know he's a walking question mark these days. After missing a month with a strained oblique muscle, he returned to the lineup only to suffer a sprained shoulder and three bruised fingers in the National League Championship Series against the Mets. Not that he ever considered something as radical as missing an inning.

When Eckstein went 0-for-11 to begin the World Series, you had to wonder. But fate has a way of finding the biggest hearts -- even when they're pumping in 5-foot, 7-inch, 165-pound bodies.

Here's the setup: St. Louis and Detroit were tied 4-4 in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the World Series on Thursday night at Busch Stadium. Aaron Miles was standing on second base with the potential go-ahead run, and Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya was boring a hole through Pudge Rodriguez's chest protector with his eyes.

If this were high school, Zumaya would just give Eckstein an atomic wedgie and stuff him in his locker and they'd call it a day.

Big and imposing vs. small and scrappy didn't look like such a mismatch moments later, when Eckstein turned around a 99-mph Zumaya fastball and lined it off Craig Monroe's glove for an RBI double to give St. Louis a 5-4 lead. Adam Wainwright closed it out in the top of the ninth, and the Cardinals are suddenly one win from rendering the baseball world speechless.

As for Eckstein, he has six hits and a walk in his last eight plate appearances, and he's playing like a guy with World Series MVP aspirations.

Eckstein's fellow Cardinals speak of him with a fondness bordering on adoration. It's so heartfelt, it almost seems cornball.

"Playing against him, you understand how big a pain he can be," reliever Braden Looper said. "You watch him play, and he's not the fastest guy in the world. He doesn't have much power. You can list all the things he can't do. Then when he's on your team, you realize he always gets it done no matter what.

"When he's out, it's always by a step. When he's up at the plate, he always puts a good at-bat on it. He always does something to put himself in an advantageous situation. And you can't say enough good about the person. He's A-plus."

Eckstein made a statement in his first plate appearance against Jeremy Bonderman, digging out of an 0-2 hole and capping a nine-pitch at-bat with an infield single. Appropriately enough, he also made a routine fielding play on a Magglio Ordonez grounder for the final out of the evening.

During the seven innings in between, St. Louis' All-Smurf double-play combination of Eckstein and Miles caused the Tigers all sorts of trouble. "Between the both of them, I don't think they get to six feet tall," Cardinals utilityman Jose Vizcaino said.

Miles doubled in the third inning, stole second and scored on an Eckstein double to give St. Louis its first run. In the eighth inning, he beat out a potential double-play grounder and moved up on a wild pitch before scoring on Eckstein's double off Monroe's glove.

Zumaya didn't mess around against Eckstein, pumping five straight fastballs that clocked 99. When a reporter at the postgame news conference asked Eckstein whether he gets a kick out of showing opponents he can hit a ball that far, Eckstein replied, "As long as they land."

The only sure thing was that Eckstein would put the ball in play somewhere. This year, he struck out once every 13.5 plate appearances. Among National League hitters, only Juan Pierre, Nomar Garciaparra and Paul Lo Duca were tougher to fan.

"Us little guys, we don't care how hard they throw," Miles said. "We're going to take a nice little swing and put our bats on it."

Eckstein's story is familiar to baseball fans who like their player bios with an inspirational slant. Boston picked him in the 19th round of the 1997 draft but waived him three years later. Eckstein batted .310 to help the Angels beat San Francisco in the 2002 World Series. And along the way, he has learned to play with an emotional burden most players could barely fathom. Three of his siblings suffered kidney ailments as youngsters and have undergone kidney transplants.

"He never takes a play off. He never takes an inning off. Make up a number -- he's 150 percent all the time. He's not afraid to sacrifice his body. ... He's the kind of guy you want when the game is on the line. He doesn't get enough praise in this league."
-- Aaron Miles about David Eckstein

When St. Louis signed Eckstein to a three-year, $10.25 million contract in December 2004, some baseball analysts characterized it as reckless spending. But now Eckstein's deal looks like a trifle compared with the mega-contracts signed by, say, Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera.

"He never takes a play off," Miles said. "He never takes an inning off. Make up a number -- he's 150 percent all the time. He's not afraid to sacrifice his body. The first play this year, he ran into a drain and scuffed up his knee. He's the kind of guy you want when the game is on the line. He doesn't get enough praise in this league."

It's worth noting that Tony La Russa, who has managed 4,283 games in the major leagues, has called Eckstein "the toughest guy I've ever seen in uniform" more than once in recent weeks.

One more game like Thursday's -- and another victory -- and Eckstein's St. Louis teammates will gladly hoist him on their shoulders and carry him off the field in tribute. Heck, Albert Pujols probably could do it by himself.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.