Luna provides St. Louis with spark

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

ST. LOUIS -- If not for Junior Spivey's poor spring training, Hector Luna would likely be in the minor leagues trying to fight his way back to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Instead, he was one of the first-month surprises for a team off to another good start. Luna has shaken off a spring performance that was nearly as bad as Spivey's, impressing with his overall skills and versatility.

"He knew he had a real good opportunity to win a job and he didn't take advantage in spring training," teammate Albert Pujols said. "He didn't win that job and he didn't have a good spring training.

"But now this is the season, and when we need it he's coming through for us."

Luna, 26, was mostly a role player the last two seasons after the Cardinals took him in the Rule 5 draft from Cleveland in 2004. He's basically been splitting time at second base with Aaron Miles, and was batting .362 with a home run and six RBIs.

He has a pair of three-hit games, multiple hits in six of 12 starts, and seven hits in 12 at-bats with runners in scoring position. He's also played well in the field.

This performance is nothing like spring training when he batted only .207 and committed four errors, failing to seize a spot when the Cardinals gave him every opportunity with 58 spring at-bats.

"Junior and me, I didn't know how that was going to work out," Luna said. "I feel a lot better now.

"In spring training, I didn't see the ball good out of the pitcher's hand."

Given new life when Spivey was outrighted to Class AAA Memphis to try to recapture the game that put him in the All-Star Game in 2002, Luna has looked more comfortable anywhere the Cardinals have put him than in either of his earlier seasons.

He's leaned a lot on Pujols, the National League MVP last year, for guidance.

"I talk a lot with Albert, he's done a lot for me," Luna said. "You can't listen to him too much because he's a good hitter and a great player."

The performances of Luna and Miles, who was batting .293 after a two-hit game on Tuesday at Cincinnati, have thus far eased questions about the hole the Cardinals had to fill at second base when they refused to pay Mark Grudzielanek more than $2 million and he left for a free-agent deal with the Royals.

"That's the kind of problem you want, isn't it?" manager Tony La Russa said. "When you've got guys playing well and you've got too many players to play rather than not enough.

"They're going to both play a lot."

Miles, a switch-hitter, also can play shortstop. Shortstop is Luna's favorite position, but he's been used all over the field and has made a handful of nice catches in the corner outfield spots.

Miles said it's a good competition.

"Hector's hitting the ball good and I'm hitting the ball pretty good, I think," Miles said. "It's a good thing for Tony La Russa to have two guys hitting good and playing good.

"With such good players around me, I just want to be a part of the team, in the mix, any way shape or form."

Spivey still is scuffling. He was batting .190 at Memphis with four RBIs and four more errors in 22 games, with only a .360 on-base percentage boosted by walks a promising sign. In spring training, he batted only .147 with four RBIs and five errors.

The Cardinals set a franchise record for double plays last year, and shortstop David Eckstein was sad to see Grudzielanek go after only one year as a combination. But he likes playing with both of the new guys.

"Luna, he's done an awesome job for us," Eckstein said. "I had the opportunity to work with him last year and I think he's made improvements.

"So, he's going good."

Luna has a simple goal for the rest of the season.

"Just keep doing it," he said.

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