Friday, August 14, 2009

Eckstein talks Cardinals

Ever wonder how the Cardinals coach up so many pitchers?

A big part of it is their unmatched emphasis on exploiting a hitter's weaknesses, said Padres second-baseman David Eckstein, who played for St. Louis from 2005-07.

"The Cardinals attack hitters in a different way from every other club," Eckstein told me in March. "They pitch to the hitter's weaknesses more than anybody does. A lot of clubs tell their pitchers to pitch to their own strengths. Not the Cardinals. They figure out what a hitter's weakness is. And they keep attacking it."

Eckstein cited the success of pitcher Jeff Weaver in 2006, notably in the postseason. Take Weaver's dismissal of the Padres in the divisional playoffs.

"His approach that game was all about going after the weaknesses of Padres hitters," Eckstein said.

Weaver was having a bad year for the Angels. The Cardinals made him another reclamation project for pitching coach Dave Duncan, an alum of San Diego's Crawford High. Weaver's five scoreless innings and victory over the Padres in Game 2 put St. Louis in control of the divisionals.

Of course, all 30 clubs try to exploit the weaknesses of hitters. The Cardinals scout it and teach it better, Eckstein said, and emphasize it more than anyone else. For example, a Cardinals pitcher might use his second- or third-best pitch, over and over, if it corresponds to a hitter's acute weakness.

That's why it's educational to watch how the Cardinals pitch the Padres, who are in St. Louis this weekend.

I often am impressed by the Cardinals' attention to detail. It showed up in all three of their playoff-series victories over the Padres. A quick example: Fairly often during the 1996 season, Padres spray hitter Jody Reed landed singles to shallow right field. The Cardinals, realizing that Reed almost never hit a ball to deep right, had Brian Jordan play in against Reed during the playoffs. Sure enough, Jordan made a pivotal catch that denied Reed a shallow single.

Eckstein said Tony La Russa's teams tend to show more alertness and energy than many teams do. Albert Pujols is a big part of it, Eckstein said, because Pujols is a team-oriented superstar with great fundamentals. His smart. bold baserunning, for example, further prods all Cardinals players to excel on the basepaths, Eckstein said.

La Russa's fire is another strength.

"Tony's big thing is to have an edge to you," said Eckstein, the MVP of the 2006 World Series. "He wanted us to play angry. We'd figure out a way to play angry."

UPDATE

The next time Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina picks a Padre off first base, Padres broadcasters Ted Leitner and Andy Masur should cue up David Byrne and the Talking Heads.

Same as it ever was...same as it ever was.

Molina and first baseman Albert Pujols are really good at the pickoff play. Padres first-base coach Rick Renteria is good at what he does, too.

I guess some lessons have to be learned the hard way, such as when Padres second-year player Will Venable was picked off by Molina, blunting a late rally on Saturday.

At some point, however, you'd think the Padres would put an end to this stuff.

The Padres don't see a whole lot of Molina, but he seems to rub out one of them every year, and every time, it's been at a key point.

There was Sean Burroughs, picked off four years ago with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning at Busch Stadium. And Brian Giles a year later, nailed for the final out of a game, after drifting off first at Petco Park. And who can forget the sight of another veteran, Mike Piazza, getting strafed by Molina in the 2006 playoffs?

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