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Thursday, June 3, 2010
Tip of the cap to Eckstein

By Mark Simon

Today is one of those days about appreciating what you don't have.

In Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga's case, that means not complaining about what could have been, and accepting what was: imperfection.

In the case of a Mets fan, it's about Padres second baseman David Eckstein.

Eckstein is one of the reasons why baseball is such a remarkable game -- that someone of his size can compete with the sluggers and the giants who are best known for other skill sets.

I know that there have been many columns written about appreciating Eckstein's grittiness. Some may choose to mock that treatment. Others can appreciate it. We can co-exist.

Earlier this year, Eckstein homered, and I sent Jayson Stark a note that this made Eckstein the "Post-Joe Morgan Era Little Guy Home Run Champion."

Translation: Eckstein's 35 home runs are the most by any player, listed by Baseball-Reference.com as being 5-foot-7 or shorter, since 1985 (one better than Warren Newson.

Yesterday, with the help of the Elias Sports Bureau, I confirmed something else about Eckstein that I found remarkable. It explained why the thought crossed my mind, one out from a Mets win, "I wonder if they should walk him."

I've worked at ESPN for eight years now, and what I saw in yesterday's Mets game, with Eckstein getting the tying hit with two outs in the ninth, I felt like I'd seen many times before.

Wednesday's game-tying hit marked the seventh time in his career that Eckstein came to bat, with his team one out from defeat, and did something that either tied the game, or put his team in the lead.

Two active players have done that more times than Eckstein has- Manny Ramirez and Aramis Ramirez each have eight such RBI to their credit. Ichiro Suzuki also has seven.

That's pretty good company.

What Eckstein did against Rodriguez, he's also done against Mariano Rivera. His first such RBI was a two-out in the ninth game-tying single against Rivera on August 26, 2001. The Angels would win in 10 innings.

What Eckstein did against Rodriguez, he did twice last season. The first time, on May 21, he did it the best way he knows how -- getting hit with a pitch from Giants closer Brian Wilson to tie the game with two outs. The Padres would win that game when the next batter, Scott Hairston, got a walk-off single.

Seventeen days later, he'd hit an improbable game-tying three-run, two-out in the ninth home run off Diamondbacks closer Chad Qualls. The result of that -- the equivalent of another game. The Diamondbacks prevailed in 18 innings. They were lucky they didn't have to face Eckstein in that 18th inning.

Arizona would be Eckstein's victims again this April 16th, when he hit a game-tying, one-out-from losing double against Juan Gutierrez. Two batters later, the Padres won on a Chase Headley walk-off home run.

Check out this stat, compiled thanks to Baseball-Reference's Play Index

Eckstein has come to bat 29 times in the ninth inning or later in a regular season or postseason game in the following situation.

* One out from defeat

* Opportunity to tie game (one-run down, or representing tying/winning run)

He's succeeded in either extending the game, or putting his team ahead, with either a hit, walk, or hit by pitch 13 times. That's a 45 percent success rate. Wow.

The Mets got him once. In the now-forgotten Game 6 of the 2006 NLCS, he grounded out with two on to end a 4-2 Mets victory. They were fortunate.

The last six times that Eckstein has been in that spot, he's succeeded in five of them. That's 83 percent success. Double wow.

Think of how nervous you would be in that situation. I can remember being in that spot in Little League. I was terrified. And not surprisingly, I didn't succeed.

Eckstein is the master of that situation. He owns it. The pitcher might be afraid. But he isn't.

I imagine that there were times in Little League that Eckstein heard what I did. "That kid's an easy out."

I was. He wasn't.

In my job, I've had a number of conversations with former major league pitchers, some of whom have had pretty good careers. To a man, they speak of how the Ecksteins of the world had great success against them.

Why? Because they'd get cocky and think they could just blow the little guy away, or finish him off with ease.

But they would forget that Eckstein was in the game for a reason. He's a player who gets the most out of everything he's been given.

A colleague and I had a conversation about strikeout king Mark Reynolds, and how he's in the major leagues because he has certain things that he does very, very well. He knows his role, tries to fulfill it, and doesn't apologize for his shortcomings. Eckstein does the same in a completely different way.

Eckstein's in the major leagues because when he takes a swing at a pitch, he makes contact with it, at least so far in 2010, 95 percent of the time. That's a great contact rate. It's why he never whiffs.

And in the toughest situation in baseball you can imagine, he's able to hold steady, focus in on the moment, and help his team try to win, as well as anyone in the game.

I've followed Eckstein peripherally for awhile now. He and I are the same age (born 11 days apart), and about the same size (I'm 5-8 1/2). When he's in the batter's box, he looks like me.

Eckstein played minor league baseball in Trenton, N.J., when I lived and worked in that area, and I recall being impressed by his prowess and determination even then. He's gone on to win two World Series and was the MVP in one. Eleven years later, I'm still impressed. Especially after Wednesday.

Mark Simon is a researcher on Baseball Tonight. You can follow him on Twitter at @msimonespn or e-mail him at webgemscoreboard@gmail.com.