Split-finger fastball may help bullpen candidate

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

JUPITER, Fla. -- A new pitch is giving Dustin Hermanson new life in his quest to secure a spot on the Cardinals' staff.

The seven-year veteran has always been intrigued by the split-finger fastball. But he wasn't motivated to give it a try until he gave up seven runs in one inning of relief earlier in spring training.

After two game appearances, the Cardinals are intrigued by the possibilities.

"Interesting, real interesting," pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "You can really see how there's some potential there, how that split finger can really benefit him. He's got to learn to use it to his advantage."

There's not much time, but Hermanson is giving it a crash course. He threw it only once in a side session before game action, and about a third of his pitches were split-fingers in his four-inning start on March 12.

Hermanson, who likely will be slotted for bullpen duty, can pick up where Dave Veres left off. Veres, who signed a free-agent deal with the Cubs, featured the split-finger in two seasons with the Cardinals.

Hermanson already prefers the pitch over his changeup. With that pitch, his arm has a tendency to slow down, but with the split finger he's thinking fastball all the way and the arm action is more deceiving for the hitters.

"You saw lots of swings and misses and I haven't been getting a lot of that because I haven't had that real sharp slider," Hermanson said. "This makes me that much more positive that now I can put them away."

Hermanson avoided the split finger fastball earlier in his career because he had heard it can cause arm problems.

"I've also heard if you throw it correctly you won't hurt your arm," he said. "I'm just taking a chance, trying to spark some things up.

"I'm making baseball interesting to me and maybe that's what I needed, a little bit of a spark."

Hermanson was officially eliminated from the competition for the last two rotation spots on Monday when he threw a two-inning relief stint. Afterward, Duncan said he wouldn't get any more starts unless one of the other six pitchers still in the running for five spots encountered a problem.

Duncan said the rotation would probably be solidified in the next few days. The Cardinals had their only day off of the spring on Tuesday.

Among other things, the pair will discuss the latest outing from Cal Eldred, who stumbled Monday after a pair of dominating efforts. While Duncan was watching starter Woody Williams and Hermanson work against the Marlins in Jupiter, Fla., manager Tony La Russa was watching Eldred pitch against the Braves in Orlando, Fla.

"We're still talking about it a lot," Duncan said. "We'll see what Tony's opinion was of Eldred. That's the first time he's gotten banged around a little bit."

Hermanson, who won 14 games for the Cardinals in 1991, has been almost exclusively a starter in the major leagues. But he has a bit of closing experience with the Expos in 2000 and was a closer in the minors.

The Cardinals liked what they saw when Hermanson worked out of the bullpen in the 2001 playoffs.

Last year he got only one start, and appeared in only 12 games, in an injury-plagued season with the Boston Red Sox. He was hampered all year by a torn groin muscle.

"Evaluations are based on history and how you project that person over the course of a season, and what you think they're capable of doing," Duncan said. "Dustin's got a lot of things going for him."

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