Rolen impersonator: Nunez fills big hole at third with bat, glove

Friday, August 5, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Even without Scott Rolen, the St. Louis Cardinals are hardly missing a beat, thanks to the career .238 hitter filling in at third base.

Utility infielder Abraham Nunez is making a name for himself in his first season in St. Louis, primarily as the fill-in while Rolen heals from a shoulder injury.

Nunez is hitting .313 with a career-best five homers and 28 RBIs. In his starts at third, Nunez is batting .364.

He's also played defense similar to Rolen, a six-time Gold Glove third baseman. So much so that Florida manager Jack McKeon jokingly wondered if Rolen really wasn't out there after a spectacular play in the ninth inning of Monday's 6-5 Cardinals' loss, a diving snag of Mike Lowell's would-be double that Nunez turned into a double play.

"The Cardinals always say Rolen is hurt," McKeon said. "I thought he played tonight. That kid did a fantastic job."

The Cardinals long coveted Nunez, 29, for their bench. Lately he's spent precious little time there.

He's started 11 of the last 12 games at third base with a one-game detour at shortstop, and he's been productive, and even a catalyst, whether manager Tony La Russa has slotted him at the top or bottom of an injury-riddled order. Before a pair of hitless games Monday and Tuesday he had been 17-for-35 during a career-best nine-game hitting streak.

"He's never had an opportunity to play this much, this often," La Russa said. "He's doing outstanding. Wherever he's played, he's played really well."

Earlier in the season, La Russa referred to Nunez as his "MVP sub."

"That's good to hear those nice things, but I don't want to think about that," Nunez said. "I just want to go out there and keep trying to get the job done."

Nunez, who's never had more than 311 at-bats in six seasons, could parlay this into a regular job next year. But that's next year.

"This is my role now and I'm going to take care of it," Nunez said. "It might change in the future, and of course everybody wants to play every day.

"We'll just see how the future goes."

Nunez' natural position is shortstop and he's played some there to spell David Eckstein. He also can play second base and has played a limited time in the outfield.

But it has been at third base that he's excelled, despite coming in with a grand total of eight games' experience.

"I feel comfortable everywhere now," Nunez said. "I came up as a shortstop and I feel real good there, but having to move to other positions is something that's been good for my career."

Nunez is one of a handful of lightly regarded players to step up during the team's rash of injuries to help the Cardinals hold the National League's best record. Rolen (shoulder), catcher Yadier Molina (broken hand), left fielder Reggie Sanders (broken leg) and right fielder Larry Walker (herniated disc in neck) all have been sidelined since last month.

John Rodriguez, a 27-year-old rookie, was batting .343 with three homers and eight RBIs as the primary fill-in for Sanders. So Taguchi has played quite a bit in right and was hitting .276 with five homers and 26 RBIs in 221 at-bats, and Einar Diaz and Mike Mahoney have filled in for Molina, who's expected back in another week or so.

The Cardinals are hopeful Rolen will be back in September, which will only mean that La Russa will have to find another place to use Nunez.

"Definitely, I'm very happy," Nunez said. "This has been a great opportunity for me."

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