Rarely one to pass up repeating a punchline that's gotten a few chuckles, manager Tony La Russa had his rejoinder ready for any questions about why the hottest hitter on the club, outfielder Ryan Ludwick, wasn't in the lineup. Again.
"I think he made an out sometime this week," La Russa deadpanned.
Ludwick might not have heard the joke, but he knows the drill, checking the lineup each day for his name. The Cardinals outfielder has home runs in four of his last five games and on Thursday had the first four-hit game of his career. Over the past three games he has started, Ludwick has eight hits in 14 at-bats, and four were for extra bases.
He just has only started three of the past seven games, and he wasn't in the lineup to start Friday's game against San Francisco. But he came in late and drew a walk then singled.
"It's a fairly easy assessment," Ludwick said of hitting well, but not necessarily starting. "My role coming in this year was to hit lefties. I knew I was going to play a majority of the time against lefties. They've got four other outfielders on this team who are hitting well, too."
Against Giants righthander Matt Cain, La Russa went with all lefthanded-hitting outfielders, not one of whom had a batting average less than Rick Ankiel's .279.
Skip Schumaker and Chris Duncan reached base in their first six combined plate appearances Friday and accounted for five runs scored. La Russa said he fiddled with finding a place for Ludwick in Friday's lineup, but couldn't talk himself out of starting any of the other outfielders.
"Which one do you sit?" he asked. "You think Schumaker is not hot? What's wrong with Duncan? What's wrong with 'Ank?' No one is as hot as Ryan, but there's no one really struggling."
Ludwick came into Friday's game with an .878 slugging percentage, which would lead the league if he had enough at-bats to qualify. Before Albert Pujols' three-run homer Friday, Ludwick and Ankiel were tied for the team lead in home runs (four) and RBIs (11). The righthanded-hitting Ludwick has a .405 batting average.
It's the kind of production the Cardinals have sought but not found from the cleanup spot.
"Hitting cleanup wouldn't bother him," La Russa said. "He's a player. When you put him in there, he's going to take his whacks."
Though the Giants are starting a righthander today — Tim Lincecum — La Russa is entertaining the idea of starting Ludwick. Last weekend in San Francisco, Ludwick struck out three times, including two of Lincecum's 11 strikeouts that day. Ludwick also singled off the righthander and later homered in the game.
He said the sporadic starting role doesn't spoil his swing, or any streak he's on.
"I don't think you're going to lose your timing with one or two or three days off," Ludwick said. "I lost my opportunity three years ago because of injuries and now I feel like I've earned it back, not like it was given to me. I've earned my way into this opportunity."