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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Drills paying off at the plate

Drills paying off at the plate
By Joe Strauss
Cesar Izturis
April 5, 2008 -- Cardinals' Cesar Izturis shys away from a pitch in the eighth inning.

HOUSTON — It's only been a week, they remind people, but the Cardinals have so far resembled the antithesis of the big-swinging, low-contact club many suspected after last winter's roster shake-up.

The Cardinals entered Monday night's series opener against the Houston Astros with 32 strikeouts vs. 30 walks, by far the most impressive ratio in either league. (They walked twice and struck out seven times Monday.)

The numbers are hardly coincidence, according to a club exposed to offensive "baby steps" last month. Fundamental improvement is traced to just that — fundamentals.

"We made it a point of emphasis in drills," said hitting coach Hal McRae. "We also discussed situational hitting a lot, much more than in the past."

The Cardinals left Jupiter, Fla., more aware of controlling the strike zone. A 5-1 start included the league lead in walks as well as a tie for fewest strikeouts with the New York Mets, who had played one fewer game. The point had been made in previous camps, team members said, but never reinforced in drills.

"We always talked about it, but we also did the work this time," McRae said. "I mean a lot of it, not just one day. It was all spring."

Though the Cardinals have labored for runs, they entered Monday leading the league in on-base percentage.

Manager Tony La Russa had seen enough positives from shortstop Cesar Izturis that he allowed him a start in the leadoff spot. Izturis had walked five times and been hit by a pitch in 22 plate appearances. Owner of a meager .295 career on-base percentage, Izturis walked only 19 times and was hit once in 338 plate appearances last season.

Izturis recently minimized any change of approach, saying only that he was focused on "getting good pitches." However, the statement summarizes what McRae and La Russa instilled in camp.

"It's about getting a good ball to hit," McRae said. "We don't walk to walk. We walk because we don't get a good ball to hit."

La Russa has never been a proponent of working walks. However, he often criticized last year's team for an inconsistent approach. He noted that the Red Sox and Yankees are two teams famous for taking pitches and wading into deep counts, "but guys go up there ready to tee off. The pitchers know that so they start pitching carefully. That's a product of being aggressive but using good judgment."

Every active position player save Aaron Miles and Rico Washington has walked. Adam Kennedy, Miles and Chris Duncan have not struck out. The team's walk total before Monday was at least twice that of three other clubs.

"I don't know if I heard much about it all last year," Miles said of the emphasis on plate control. "I know guys were listening to it this spring."

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