ST. LOUIS — David Eckstein, the little engine that drives the St. Louis Cardinals, is in need of a tuneup.
The team values the 5-foot-7 inch, 165-pound shortstop and leadoff hitter for his contagious, infectious, go-go attitude as much as for the more tangible contributions. During the National League Championship Series, general manager Walt Jocketty referred to Eckstein as the “pulse” of the team.
“He’s a leader in this clubhouse, he’s a leader on the field and he comes every day to play the game as hard as he can,” ace pitcher Chris Carpenter said. “He’s a big part of this club.”
But it has been a struggle for a while now for Eckstein, who has been worn down by injuries since June. The latest setback: a sprained left shoulder making a diving stop on Jose Reyes’ infield hit on the first pitch of Game 5 of the NLCS.
Since then, he has taken fewer batting practice cuts than his teammates and avoided unnecessary throws to conserve himself for the games. He skipped everything on the off day before Game 3 on Monday at Busch Stadium while the rest of his teammates went through a mandatory workout.
Eckstein’s defense has not been affected, though he’s had no success at the plate in the World Series or much in the postseason overall.
“I limit my swings in the on-deck circle, limit batting practice,” Eckstein said. “If the other guys are taking three sessions in the cage, I’ll take one or two.
“I limit all the stuff I do before the game.”
Eckstein, who batted .292 in the regular season, is 0-for-9 against the Tigers with a strikeout and a double-play ball to end the eighth inning in the Cardinals’ 3-1 Game 2 loss. He is hitting .160 overall (8-for-50) in the postseason with two extra-base hits, a home run and a double, and two RBIs.
Trainer Barry Weinberg said the latest injury is not so severe that Eckstein wouldn’t have tried to play through it during the regular season. Weinberg also noted the heart factor.
“Is he 100 percent? No. Is he playable? Yeah,” Weinberg said. “So he plays. That’s David, that’s his nature. He pushes on and he doesn’t want to not be in the lineup.”
Teammate Scott Rolen said Eckstein deserves to be out there if he thinks he can play. That, of course, is a subject that strikes close to Rolen given that the Gold Glove third baseman has been benched twice in the postseason because of offensive struggles prompted perhaps by a sore left shoulder.
“If he gives the nod that he can go out and play, he earned it and we want him out there,” Rolen said. “I believe the man. I’ll take him out there any day.”
In the postseason, it’s common for players to soldier through aches and pains accumulated from six months of competition.
“Man, there’s a lot of people banged up right now,” Preston Wilson said. “That’s part of the game, that’s part of what you do.
“Playing banged up right now is better than sitting at home.”
Those have always been words to live by for Eckstein, though this year, he was limited to 123 games. The physical woes began with what was described as a mild concussion he suffered in mid-June while breaking up a double play in Pittsburgh.
Eckstein was second in the NL with 86 hits to go with a .322 average when he got hurt. Post-concussion symptoms, again mild, conspired to hold him a .234 average in July and .233 in August while he struggled with focus.
He missed 24 games after a hard slide into Cubs catcher Michael Barrett on Aug. 19 resulted in a strained left side muscle. He sat for five more games with a strained left hamstring in late September.
The Cardinals have a capable backup in Aaron Miles, who did a nice job filling in during Eckstein’s side injury and had a stint as the starting second baseman before Ronnie Belliard was acquired in August. It’s highly unlikely Eckstein will ask for time off.
“Unfortunately, he’s been banged up,” Weinberg said. “He plays so hard a lot of times it catches up with him.
“But you can’t tell him to back off his game, because that’s not who he is.”