St. Louis Cardinals notes

   Before BRENDAN RYAN was sent back to Class AAA Memphis on Thursday, second-year St. Louis Cardinals outfielder CHRIS DUNCAN said he was impressed with the way the rookie shortstop calmly handled many challenging situations without altering his basic approach to the game. Cardinals manager TONY LA RUSSA said he had noticed the same thing. “I agree,” La Russa said. “He’s ranged on popups; he’s made plays defensively; he’s had guys sliding into him and still turned double plays. “And he’s gotten base hits. I think he’s doing a really good job. He has real major league skills in every department.” Ryan — a very capable replacement for the recuperating DAVID ECKSTEIN, who was reactivated on Thursday — was hitting .268 with two home runs and five RBIs in 15 games and had played steady defense, with the occasional eye-popping play, like on a tough double play he initiated against Arizona. He was hitting .314 in games he had started, and his 11th-inning homer beat the Mets on June 26. La Russa said the first-half play of Ryan and several other young Cardinals “is part of why I’m encouraged, because there’s a lot of guys that have gotten a lot of playing and pitching time. “And if we start to get some pieces back where the club is more complete, you’re talking about guys that are going to be in different roles but are going to have a lot of life to their games, whether it’s pitching or hitting.” The manager called it a “half-full, half-empty” situation. “The half-full part of getting beat up is that we got some guys like a (RYAN) LUDWICK, a (SKIP) SCHUMAKER, what Brendan Ryan’s done for us, how (AARON) MILES has responded, (SO) TAGUCHI — we’ve gotten a lot of good things that way.” And as for his regulars? “I think our position players can pick up the quality of our play,” La Russa said. “Both in getting back off their heels on defense sometimes and (having) more relentless at-bats.”    CARDS QUIZ: Recent relief acquisition TROY PERCIVAL won his first two outings with the Cardinals after not pitching in the major leagues for nearly two years. Who was the last Cardinals reliever to win his first two outings? Answer below.    ECKSTEIN UPDATE: The decision to keep Eckstein inactive until after the four-day All-Star break was made early last week, after last fall’s World Series MVP tried to practice at full speed and again experienced lower back spasms. It was hoped the extra week of rest, coupled with three cortisone shots, would allow his back muscles to fully relax and return to normal. Eckstein was hitting .313 when he went on the DL. “When I went out there (last week) and did the baseball activities at 100 percent, I definitely felt it again, to the point that it was restricting my mobility,” said Eckstein, who missed 22 games. “So that’s when I decided to say yes, I’ll go take the shots, and hopefully calm it down. We had made such great progress up to that point.”    WAINWRIGHT STUFF: Starter ADAM WAINWRIGHT continues to make big pitches with men on base in order to record double plays, including four DPs during his seven-plus innings in his last start against Arizona.   “That shows you what he’s capable of doing,” La Russa said of his team’s first seven-game winner. “We saw it in the bullpen. We like him because he’s got pitches all over the zone. “I mean, no matter what kind of hitter you have, he can attack him. He did different things to get those different outs.”     SWEET RELIEF: Four of the last five Cardinals wins before last Sunday were credited to relievers. The Cards bullpen is 7-2 with a 1.75 ERA (72 innings/14 ER) while limiting opponents to a .194 (49-253) batting average in the team’s last 16 games since June 17. The Cardinals bullpen currently ranks seventh in the NL with an overall 3.72 ERA.    QUIZ ANSWER: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Percival is the first Cardinals reliever to win his first two outings since MIKE GARMAN did so in 1974.    END QUOTE: La Russa, about the All-Star Home Run Derby: “I don’t get a big kick out of the home run contest, to be honest. If I could get away with taking a shower and go have dinner, I’d do it.”   Hal Pilger of The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., can be reached at 788-1548 or