Stephenson eager for start as first spring game nears

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

JUPITER, Fla. -- Garrett Stephenson gets the first chance to prove that after two years of injuries, he deserves a spot in the Cardinals' starting rotation.

Stephenson will get the start Thursday when the Cardinals open exhibition play against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, Fla. But manager Tony La Russa cautions against reading too much into the opening-day assignment.

"That's just the way it worked out," La Russa said.

The Cardinals are set at the top of their rotation with Matt Morris, Woody Williams and Brett Tomko. After that, four pitchers -- Stephenson, Cal Eldred, Jason Simontacchi and Dustin Hermanson -- are battling for the final two spots.

Tomko will start the spring home opener against the Mets Friday in Jupiter.

Stephenson will throw 40 to 50 pitches and will be followed by prospect Jimmy Journell, who will also get 40-50 pitches. Other relievers who could pitch Thursday include Matt Duff, Gabe Molina, Mike Crudale and Kevin Ohme.

The Cardinals have 33 pitchers in camp this spring. In addition to the two spots in the rotation, several reliever jobs are up for grabs.

Stephenson has had to overcome a series of elbow, back and hamstring injuries since the 2000 post-season, but said he is ready and eager to claim a spot in the rotation. He said Tuesday he was happy with his performance throwing batting practice.

"My mechanics were good and for the most part I hit my locations with my fastball and change-up," he said. "I'm pretty happy right now. I feel good except for the usual spring training aches."

Stephenson, 31, was 16-9 in 2000 and started one game in the National League Division Series against Atlanta, working into the fourth inning of Game 3 when it all began to disintegrate. He was left off the championship series roster with a sprained medial collateral ligament and a strained flexor muscle in his right elbow.

Stephenson lost the 2001 season after Tommy John surgery and tried to come back too quickly last season and suffered more injuries.

In 10 starts last season, Stephenson was 2-5 with a 5.40 ERA.

Notes: Outfielder Kerry Robinson has signed a one-year contract, the team announced Tuesday. Terms were not disclosed. Robinson hit .260 in 124 games last season. Still unsigned are outfielder Albert Pujols and Simontacchi. ... The Cardinals played their first of two coach-pitch intrasquad games Tuesday afternoon. Minor league pitching coordinator Mark Riggins and minor league pitching coach Dyar Miller were the pitchers. Outfielder Jon Nunnally, who spent last season in Triple-A, had three hits, including a two-run homer.

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