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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Villone shows he still has plenty to offer

By Derrick Goold

DENVER — As Friday's game against the Chicago Cubs veered deeper into extra innings, reliever Ron Villone figured the best way to stay in the game was to remain close to the man conducting the game.

So, he planted himself by

manager Tony La Russa.

"I stood almost beside him, to let him know I was lurking," Villone said. "At this stage of my career, I can talk myself into the game a little longer. 'Whatever you need from me, I'll give it to you.'"

What they've needed recently is zero-defect late relief.

Including his two shutout innings Monday that calmed a rallying Colorado lineup, Villone has been the pivotal reliever in two of the Cardinals' past four victories. The lefthander has thrown 12 consecutive scoreless innings, dating to April 13. The one earned run he has allowed, in 14 1/3 innings this season, scored on a sacrifice fly.

His last two appearances have come walking the tightrope of a tie game in late innings, and he has thrown 4 1/3 shutout innings to help defeat the Cubs on Friday and Rockies on Monday.

"Those are spectacular examples of what we've seen all season long," manager Tony La Russa said. "Two dramatic examples of how (Villone's helped) us win games."

Villone, 38, signed with the Cardinals during spring training on a minor-league contract. The Cardinals were on the hunt for lefthanded depth, though Villone couldn't be typecast as a lefty specialist. With Tyler Johnson unable to throw during spring training because of shoulder troubles that still have him on the disabled list, there was not only a spot for Villone but a need.

The role has come over time.

In his 14th season and with his 11th big-league club, Villone has a varied background as a pitcher. He has made 93 major-league starts, and he was used as a lefty specialist by the New York Yankees as recently as last season. In 20 appearances against lefties this season, Villone has struck out six and has yet to give up a hit. He has done the specialist thing well, and also hogged innings when needed.

Hitters are batting .130 against him.

"One of his assets is his competitiveness," La Russa said. "He's not out there showcasing his stuff. He gets into the competition."

That motor starts revving in the first inning, Villone said. As a former starter, he doesn't dial back his preparation; instead, he prefers to be constantly on the cusp of getting the call. That unchained competitiveness storms out at times, like when he joined the fracas with Houston on the field recently and began hollering at the Astros. Said Ryan Franklin, a former teammate in Seattle, "That's just Ron."

Ron has just been whatever he's asked to be.

"You want the ball," Villone said. "It doesn't matter what time you get it. Knowing I go out there from the first inning on and I'm ready. I let them know I'm ready. If I can do anything to keep this team in the game, so be it."

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