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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Chance to play is motivation enough for most Cardinals

Most media analysts believed the Cardinals would stink this season. For a month, anyway, they did not stink.

Did all that naysaying leave these players with a chip on their shoulders?

The question made outfielder Skip Schumaker smile. He made seven trips back and forth to the minors before finally sticking this season – and even now, top outfield prospect Colby Rasmus looms large on his horizon.

So, no, the noisy pessimists didn’t motivate him this spring.

“A lot of the outfielders had long terms in the minor leagues,” Schumaker said. “That’s our chip. We don’t need to get a chip from what reporters were saying.”

That is a prevailing theme with this team. A lot of guys traveled a long, difficult road to get this opportunity. Those journeys made them eager to exploit whatever opportunity arises.

Their travels leave them hungry today, as they continue to battle for their place in the majors.

Consider the case of Rick Ankiel. After finally giving up on his derailed pitching career, he went back to Class A Quad Cities to start over. He moved up to Springfield later in 2005, missed 2006 with a knee injury and spent the bulk of last season in Memphis.

Now, at 28 years old, he is finally settling back in the majors.

Consider the case of Chris Duncan. He started his journey in Johnson City back in 1999. He spent most of the next three years in Peoria, with one side trip to Potomac. He split the 2003 season between Palm Beach and Tennessee.

Then came a year in Tennessee and 1½ seasons in Memphis. He ground away for 3,052 minor league at-bats before he finally stuck with the Cards. Along the way, he learned how to play the outfield to advance his career.

Consider the case of Ryan Ludwick. He started with the A’s organization and got traded to the Rangers organization. Texas traded him to the Indians. Just when he appeared to be breaking out, a leg injury derailed his career.

After that, he spent more time in the minors (Akron, Buffalo, Toledo and Memphis) than the majors -– until the Cardinals promoted him last season. He turns 30 this season, so he does NOT want to return to the Pacific Coast League.

Consider the case of Brian Barton. The Indians dumped him from their 40-man roster after his three-year tour from Lake City to Kinston, Akron and Buffalo. He successfully rebounded from knee surgery to make the Cards roster in spring training.

Now Schumaker, Ankiel, Duncan, Ludwick and Barton are fighting for at-bats as Tony La Russa shuffles his lineup from day to day.

“We all get along,” Ankiel said. “It’s easy to play with guys you like.”

But what about the competition?

“I don’t look at it that way,” Ankiel said. “I see it as my friends are doing well and I want to do well, too.”

This spirit seems to cover the entire team. Adam Kennedy and Aaron Miles are sharing the second-base job. Brendan Ryan will push Cesar Izturis for at-bats at shortstop.

The competition for pitching jobs has already forced the Cards to demote two pitchers doing well here, Kelvin Jimenez and Brad Thompson (who subsequently went on the disabled list). The organization has a second pitching staff in the wings -– veterans recovering from injuries and prospects on the fast track.

Not many players on the current team are set. Albert Pujols and Troy Glaus are set on the infield corners. Yadier Molina is set behind the plate, Adam Wainwright is the staff ace and Jason Isringhausen will remain the closer this season as long as he is healthy.

Other than that, guys are playing for their jobs. It’s no coincidence, then, that the Cards have been competitive in almost every game they have played this season.

They won’t care about what they may read in the newspaper or on the Internet. They are just trying to keep their name on the lineup card.

Is this team skilled enough to last the duration of the pennant race? We can’t say that on May 1. But motivation will NOT be an issue with this group.

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