ST. LOUIS — David Eckstein got his first day off on Sunday, not because he needed one but because the St. Louis Cardinals know they need him for the long haul.
Eckstein never asks for a rest and his conversations with manager Tony La Russa on the topic typically are brief: “He asked me, I said I was fine,” Eckstein said after one start last week.
Then again, he’s never played in all 162 games, and that’s not one of his career goals. Cal Ripken need not worry.
So watching Sunday’s game at Kansas City from the bench after starting the first 43 games as manager Tony La Russa’s reliable ignitor was no big deal. Hector Luna performed cameo duty at Eckstein’s shortstop spot, and Aaron Miles batted first and got two hits.
It wasn’t a shock to sit, either. Before the Cardinals left town last week, Eckstein and La Russa had agreed that he’d probably get time off during the weekend. What better time than Sunday, a day game after playing the night before?
“Tony’s biggest thing on a day off is that you can rest and you might have somebody that is going to play like it’s Game 7 of the World Series and have the game of his life, as opposed to running someone out there every day just to say he’s out there,” Eckstein said. “They definitely want to get me a day off before you get to that point where you’re tired.”
Eckstein has been one of the team’s most consistent performers in the first month and a half. He’s among the league leaders in hits, multi-hit games and, of course, innings played. He’s the best in the National League at making contact at the plate, swinging and missing an average of about 5 percent of the time. He’s batting a robust .385 at home.
He’s not tired, and La Russa doesn’t want fatigue to enter into the equation.
“The point is, you try to get them before they slow down,” La Russa said.
Albert Pujols, who leads the majors in home runs, RBIs and runs, is unquestionably the player the Cardinals are built around. But Eckstein’s contributions are tough to ignore.
“He’s had a tremendous start,” La Russa said. “I keep looking at the board and he’s hitting .400 in our ballpark, a lot of clutch hits, a lot of clutch plays.”
That’s Eckstein, right in the thick of things. Last year he played in a career-high 158 games, and sat out only one after the All-Star break. He considers his durability no big deal.
“I definitely enjoy playing every day,” he said. “This game is meant to be played every day, so if I’m feeling good I would like to be in there.
“To me, this game is all about feel, and if you have too many days off it’s hard to keep the feel.”
The 5-7, 170-pound pepperpot keeps from wearing down by paying close attention to his nutrition. He keeps his legs fresh by parking himself on the couch watching his latest favorite television shows.
“I think it’s a testament to him really working hard on his conditioning: what he eats, how much rest he gets,” La Russa said.