Wednesday, February 13, 2008

By Geoff Bilau - Editor

“Yes! No way! YES!”

Three reactions to three grand slams. More specifically, three grand slams hit over a six-week span of the 2002 season by diminutive shortstop David Eckstein, the first two coming in consecutive games.

Ultimately, these home runs would be justifiably overshadowed by some slightly bigger wallops by Eckstein’s teammates later in the season, but if 2002 is remembered as a magical season for the Angels, this is where the magic started.

Starting the season 6-14 on the heels of a 2001 campaign that saw the Angels finish 41 games out of first place, Anaheim seemed anything but magical as 2002 began. A 10-6 win at Seattle on April 24, snapped a four-game losing streak and the Angels headed home with at least a small puff of wind in their sails.

Back home again, Kevin Appier and three relievers combined on a 9-hit shutout over Toronto to provide a little more momentum. What happened the next two days, however, is the stuff people tell their grandkids about.

In the second game of the Toronto series, the Angels went to the bottom of the fifth inning tied, 4-4. RBI-hits by Troy Glaus and Brad Fullmer, and a run-scoring groundout by Bengie Molina gave the Angels a three-run lead. And following a walk to Scott Spiezio, Eckstein put the game away.

On a 1-2 pitch from Scott Cassidy, Eckstein snuck one just over the short wall in left field, near the foul pole, for a grand slam and an 11-4 lead. It was the Angels biggest inning of the season to that point, Eckstein’s first home run and only the fifth of his career.

A day later, things went from surprising to just plain silly. A back-and-forth game saw the Angels and Blue Jays tied, 4-4, in the 14th inning. Toronto finally broke the deadlock with a run in the top of the inning, however, and the Angels run of bad luck appeared to have returned. But Glaus led off with a single and Salmon doubled him to third. A one-out intentional walk to Molina loaded the bases, but Kennedy struck out, leaving it up to Eckstein.

The 5-foot 6-inch shortstop took a 1-1 offering from Pedro Borbon Jr. to nearly the same exact spot in left field for a second grand slam in as many days, this one a walkoff shot that gave the Angels their first three-game winning streak of the season and, finally, some serious swagger. Two days later, they’d defeat the Indians, 21-2, in Cleveland and not look back in winning 21 of 24 games following their 6-14 start.

With the Angels magic in full swing now, it was only fitting that Eckstein had one more trick up his sleeve. On June 9, in the second inning of an interleague game against the Cincinnati Reds, Eckstein again came to the plate with the bases loaded. No sooner than you could think, “He couldn’t possibly do it again, could he?” he did it again.

“I don’t know if one time is better than another for a home run,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, “... but (Eckstein) has hit them at three times which have been incredible and have won three games for us.”

Eckstein became only the second Angel ever to hit three grand slams in one season. Joe Rudi did it in both 1978 and 1979. Of course, Rudi hit 179 home runs in his career. Eckstein has 30.

That thing they say about big things coming in small packages — in 2002, David Eckstein proved it.
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