Cardinals Middle Infield Defense Rests its Case

Brian Walton introduces a new series, focusing on one of the most overlooked, yet important part of the 2005 Cardinals' success – their middle infield defense.

It was game 138 of a 162-contest, six-month marathon. On Labor Day, September 5, 2005, the St. Louis Cardinals faced their archrivals, the Chicago Cubs, at friendly Busch Stadium in the first of a three-game series.

Continuing his quiet, consistent 2005 excellence, starting pitcher Jeff Suppan departed a tense tie game after allowing just two unearned runs in six innings of work. Following consecutive home runs by sluggers Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds that created a four-run lead heading into the ninth, victory seemed secure as closer Jason Isringhausen climbed the mound to collect the final three outs.

But, on this occasion, Izzy found a way to put the labor back into Labor Day. He quickly and inefficiently put the tying run at the plate with no outs after allowing three straight singles to load the bases. Light-hitters Henry Blanco, Corey Patterson and Neifi Perez were on for Jerry Hairston, Jr., who walked to force in the first run of the inning. Izzy departed dejectedly, head down, unable to register even a single out.

Cardinals fans, a number of whom were already heading toward their cars, instead began to reverse course, returning to their seats, not wanting to witness what was happening, but not willing to leave.

Set-up man Julian Tavarez promptly allowed a sacrifice fly to score another run as the lead had been halved and seemed to be just an instant away from disappearing entirely.

The remainder of the 49,646 faithful in attendance held their collective breath as Cubs star and National League batting leader Derrek Lee stepped up the plate, representing the potential winning run.

With one out in the ninth, the ball jumped off Lee's bat and bounded right smack up the middle; the same location where Lee had expertly placed countless clutch hits during his unprecedented 2005 season while chasing the elusive Triple Crown.

However, this time, the result was much different. It wasn't a big base hit, like so many of Lee's shots had been before. But, it wasn't an out, either. It was two – Cubs outs #26 and 27 of the day.

The game log for September 5th simply and antiseptically recounts the game's final play: "D. Lee grounded into double play second to first, J. Hairston Jr. out at second."

That is all that history will reflect. But, there was more; much more.

You see, Cardinals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek was positioned perfectly, basically standing behind the second base bag, patiently waiting for Lee's ball to slide softly into his glove.

From there, it was automatic. Step on the bag, elude the runner bearing down on his legs and fire the ball to Pujols at first in what seemed to be a single, uninterrupted motion, completing the back-breaking twin killing in the process.

Not surprisingly, the day's Cardinals headlines focused on Suppan's stellar pitching and Pujols' dramatic three-run home run, the ultimate margin of victory. Tavarez' save in relief of Izzy was called out as the final nail in the Cubs' coffin that day. Grudzielanek's game-ending defensive gem was a minor footnote, if noted at all.

Yet, the anticipation of the Cardinals' middle infielder, destined to be forgotten in the annals of a very long season, could very likely have been the slim thread of difference between Cardinals victory #88 and a stunning defeat administered by their most bitter rival.

That final play was no accident. It was a scene that has been repeated in variation countless times this season - a vivid demonstration of what Cardinals fans have grown to love and yes, almost expect - as they have witnessed literally hundreds of putouts and 187 double plays in 2005 to-date. The team's total is best in the major leagues this season and just five short of the club record for double plays, set back in 1974.

Over and above the impressive numbers, what makes this story so compelling is that the middle infield was arguably the biggest question mark of many for the Cardinals coming into this season. The replacements signed on for perennial Gold Glover Edgar Renteria and second baseman Tony Womack were looked at by many as a major step down defensively.

151 regular-season games later, what was expected by some to be a major weakness is instead one of the 2005 Cardinals' greatest strengths.

That's what tomorrow's companion piece is all about – defensive positioning of the middle infielders. What makes it unique is that the story is told in their own words by some of the Cardinals' most important contributors – shortstop David Eckstein, pitching coach Dave Duncan and bench coach Joe Pettini.

Along with their explanation of what makes this infield defense so special is a look inside Pettini's red binder – the same one you see him poring through and scribbling into from his familiar perch in the Cardinals dugout all season long.

Pettini showed me how he prepares the defense for every series and every day and how it is adjusted during every contest. You'll even get a glimpse of the actual spray charts used to track where opposing batters have hit the ball in the past as well as an example of the game chart used to position the infielders for each opposing hitter against left-handed and right-handed pitchers.

It's not too late to join the subscribers to www.thestlcardinals.com and read the rest of this story. Start with a seven-day free trial and if you like what you read here plus the great insider content the other Scout.com sites have to offer, only a tad more than $1.50 a week will net you a one-year subscription to access it all.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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