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Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Updated: October 13, 4:00 AM ET
Cardinals thrive on the details

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- A wrecking ball will take Busch Stadium's life at season's end, but by the look and feel of the St. Louis Cardinals' 5-3 win in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, don't reach for a hard hat any time soon.

David Eckstein
David Eckstein throws to first base to complete a double play in the third inning.
In fact, you don't need a demolition crew for this 40-year-old piece of concrete; just pipe in the crowd noise from Wednesday evening's victory against the Houston Astros, when an audience of red, all 52,332 of them, caused a worn, tired stadium to tremble. Maybe the Cardinals' fans knew the essential NLCS truth: that in the last dozen years, the winner of Game 1 advanced to the World Series.

If not for that pesky no-cheering-in-the-press-box rule, I'd clap for the Cardinals, too. I say this despite living in Chicago, having a soft spot for, sigh, the Chicago Cubs, and witnessing countless times the Cardinals have left beak and claw marks on the Cubbies.

But watch the Cardinals enough times and it becomes as obvious as a Clydesdale horseshoe why this team won 100 regular-season games, why it swept the San Diego Padres in the NL Division Series, and why it owns a 1-0 lead in this series. The Cardinals do the supersized things, such as hit home runs (Reggie Sanders's two-run monster mash -- 445 feet -- gave St. Louis a first-inning lead) and take advantage of Astros starter Andy Pettitte and his gimpy knee. But they also do the things not easily seen on your baseball menu.

The crowd needed a dose of Prozac after Sanders' homer, but it was professional pest David Eckstein who began the inning with a single to right. Eckstein is 5-foot-7, 165 pounds (so says the Cardinals' media guide) and looks as if he needs a parents' permission slip to stay out past 10 p.m. His cap nearly engulfs his head.

But ask St. Louis manager Tony La Russa about the 30-year-old shortstop and he starts dropping compliments as if they're available in the gift shop.

"Toughest guy I've been around," said La Russa.

It was Eckstein who singled in the first, and scored. ... Eckstein who turned an inning-ending double play in the third with bases loaded and Astros runner Willy Taveras so close on the slide that the Cardinals' shortstop can tell what you brand of gum Taveras chews. ... Eckstein who singled home St. Louis' fourth run, took second on the throw home, and later, when Albert Pujols singled to right, sprinted to the plate as if his cleats were in flames.

"Sometimes weird things happen," said Eckstein.

Like Pujols maybe trying for second and getting thrown out before Eckstein crosses the plate. Like Astros outfielder Jason Lane channeling Vlad Guerrero and throwing out Eckstein at home. Like ESPN SportsCenter anchors mocking Eckstein if that happened.

"They'd say, 'Look at him, he slowed down,' " said Eckstein.

No, they won't because Eckstein and the Cardinals never quit turning the volume to 11. Even when they screw up, they screw up because they try so hard. Their lone error of the night came when Eckstein fielded a ball he had no business reaching, followed by a hurried throw to second.

Sanders, playing for his seventh team in the last eight years, hit the home run that created the largest roar of the evening. He now has 12 RBI this postseason, which comes in handy as you enter free agency. Keep this up and someone from Wheaties is going to be in touch.

But it was also Sanders who made a leaping catch of what could have been a Mike Lamb home run in the sixth inning. Sanders' line score: drives in two, saves one.

La Russa adores the streak Sanders is on, but he understands that little things are the difference between a ring ceremony and another near-miss. When he replays Wednesday night's game, La Russa said he'll remember third baseman Abraham Nunez chipping in two hits (and scoring once) from the No. 8 spot in the lineup. He'll point to the play Nunez made in the fourth inning, when he fielded a grounder with bases loaded and found a slim throwing lane to home to prevent an Astros run. He'll smile about Pujols' at-bat in the fifth inning, when the NL MVP candidate poked a ball to the opposite field for an RBI.

"That was such a typical game we played all year long," said La Russa.

Little things.

Sure, Cards starter Chris Carpenter won his fifth game against the Astros this season (going eight innings, and giving up just five hits and those two runs), but guess what everyone was talking about in the St. Louis clubhouse?

Two perfectly executed sacrifice bunts by Carpenter, including a suicide squeeze that pushed the Cardinals lead to 3-0 in only the second inning. His fifth-inning sac bunt bumped Nunez to second, where he scored minutes later on Eckstein's hit.

"The bunting side of the game has not been easy for Chris," said La Russa.

But that's the thing about La Russa and the Cardinals: they sweat the small stuff. If Mark Grudzielanek, who was on third during the suicide squeeze, tips the play, it doesn't work. If Carpenter gags on the bunt, it doesn't work.

"He expects the execution part of it," said Eckstein of La Russa.

And he gets it. That's why the Cardinals are one baby step closer to a second consecutive pennant. And why Busch Stadium will get a temporary reprieve.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.