Four still in a race for final two spots in Cards' rotation

Sunday, March 16, 2003

JUPITER, Fla. -- A month into spring training, the Cardinals still officially have two vacant rotation slots.

"Guys aren't eliminating themselves. Not yet," pitching coach Dave Duncan said.

The first three positions are spoken for, with 17-game winner Matt Morris, Woody Williams and Brett Tomko safe and sound. The most compelling storyline of the spring for the team, however, has been the four-man battle at the bottom end.

Time is running out and Cal Eldred, Jason Simontacchi, Garrett Stephenson and Dustin Hermanson are all theoretically still in the running. That's probably the pecking order for now, given impressive outings all spring by Eldred and Simontacchi and more spotty efforts by the other two.

Stephenson was just "OK," in the words of manager Tony La Russa, in his last outing. Hermanson unveiled a new pitch, the split finger fastball, and was effective in his last start. The previous appearance he allowed seven runs in one inning.

The odd men out could conceivably end up in the bullpen, or as trade bait, although the team has no glaring needs. Duncan said both Hermanson and Eldred could work as relievers, although Eldred's surgically repaired elbow likely would keep him from pitching too often.

Lacking experience

The Cardinals are less likely to try Stephenson and Simontacchi in the bullpen because neither has much experience there. Then again, the team appears a little light in right-handed relief with Joey Hamilton likely the only one who has clinched a job. Al Levine and Mike Crudale have had shaky springs.

"Right now we're looking at it very day," Duncan said.

Those in the competition are trying not to let it bother them. There's more talent in camp this year because the Cardinals ended up using 26 pitchers due to injuries last season, and all agree that a baseball team can never have enough pitching.

"For the team, it's awesome," Simontacchi said. "Look at all the guys we have, and every one of us is qualified."

Stephenson has often said if he pitches well enough, he'll get a job somewhere.

"I just do everybody else," Stephenson said. "When they give you the ball, they give you the ball, and you go out and do the best you can."

Simontacchi's stock has improved greatly since January, when La Russa said he would "lose all ties" with other pitchers because he's the only member of the group with minor league options remaining.

He won 11 games as a 28-year-old rookie, which helped prop up a battered staff, but doesn't have a blazing fastball.

Instead, he relies on sinking action and pinpoint control. He also has results on his side, allowing one run on two hits in five innings Thursday against the Dodgers.

"You look at some other guys and wow, the radar gun lights up," Simontacchi said. "There's a lot of different ways to be successful, though."

La Russa appears committed to Eldred, who sat out all last season after undergoing elbow surgery in 2001. Eldred topped double figures in victories five times in the 1990s, including a 10-2 record in 2000.

His last two starts, the right-hander has worked eight scoreless innings, allowing only two hits. He had a string of 25 straight outs without a hit snapped in his last outing.

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