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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Kennedy's revival one of Cards' best stories

Adam Kennedy has always hit.

Well, not always -– last season he scuffled at the plate while batting just .219. He struggled with some off-field problems and seldom hit the ball hard during games.

It was an odd spectacle. In his previous seven full seasons at the major league level, Kennedy’s worst batting average was .266. Twice he batted .300 or better. The guy had been automatic at the plate, like previous Cardinal Mark Grudzielanek.

By modern standards, he was still in his athletic prime this spring at 32 years old. It was hard to imagine his hitting days were behind him. It was hard to believe he had contracted the dreaded Junior Spivey Disease, which has sent other infielders into retirement before their time.

Kennedy came to camp as one of the X-factors on this team, one of the reasons why the Cardinals could actually improve in 2008 instead of regress. He was one of the X-factors that the experts dismissed while writing off the Cards as hapless also-rans for ’08.

But now Kennedy is doing what he has always done. He is hitting line drives and adding steady offense in whatever role manager Tony La Russa gives him.
What he is now is the player he’s been his whole career,” La Russa observed before the team departed on their current trip. “He is now what he has been, a winning player.”

La Russa publicly challenged Kennedy to come to spring training ready to work. The team was prepared to move on without him.

Aaron Miles, a La Russa favorite, re-upped as a free agent. Energetic Brendan Ryan offered another infield option, as did well-traveled veteran D’Angelo Jimenez. Jarrett Hoffpauir loomed as a good-hitting prospect in the minors.
Kennedy had two years left on his contract, but that money wasn’t big enough to guarantee him a spot on the team. He had to earn that spot and he did.

His rejuvenation is just one of the many good stories on this team. He is the anti-Scott Rolen, a proud veteran who dug in and delivered after getting challenged by his boss.

Rolen became outraged when La Russa prodded him to do better. He demanded a trade and welcomed a move to Toronto, a far less demanding baseball environment. So what if the Blue Jays are seldom in a pennant race? Up there, Rolen will get to collect his massive paycheck in peace.

Kennedy, by contrast, refocused and became one of his team’s pacesetters. His two hits Monday night lifted his batting average to .333. He looks like an excellent fit in the No. 2 hole, ahead of Albert Pujols, when the Cards face a righthanded starting pitcher.

Although he doesn’t offer the big-time power that La Russa likes in that spot, Kennedy can hit gap shots and use his speed on the basepaths. He can jump on those fastballs he sees hitting ahead of the National League’s most dangerous hitter.

But Kennedy still has to compete for his at-bats. Miles, who also plays shortstop and third base, is batting .308 this season. La Russa wants to keep him regularly involved as well.

And then there is Ryan, batting .321 after recovering from the side injury he suffered in spring training. He also plays shortstop and third, but La Russa can deploy Ryan at second base against lefthanded starters.

Since teams go out of their way to send lefties against the Cards, Kennedy finds himself in a platoon role despite his excellent start.

Before driving in two runs Sunday night during a 5-3 victory over the Cubs, Kennedy had batted just once since April 29.

“You have to give him extra credit because he hadn’t started in several games,” said La Russa, who went on to praise the veteran’s positive outlook.

Kennedy’s resurgence has created a nice problem for La Russa. Kennedy, Miles and now Ryan are all hitting well enough to command playing time. Some of that will come at the expense of Cesar Izturis, a liability against righthanded pitchers, but La Russa will have eager hitters on his bench at any given time.

It beats the alternative -– the grim scenario so many experts predicted for this team.

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