Rodriguez won't stay on bench

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

In limited playing time, rookie John Rodriguez is batting .417.

ST. LOUIS -- Injuries gave John Rodriguez his first big break in the major leagues. A lofty .417 average is helping him carve out a more permanent niche.

The 28-year-old rookie had two more hits and scored twice on Sunday in his latest successful game as the St. Louis Cardinals' No. 2 hitter. For now, at least against right-handed pitching, he's filling what had been one of the team's big lineup voids.

Rodriguez started all three games against the Diamondbacks this weekend, and played so well that manager Tony La Russa might be tempted to play him again against Mets left-hander Tom Glavine on Tuesday night. His on-base percentage is an even more lofty .471.

"Johnny gives you great at-bats pretty much every single time he goes up there," leadoff man David Eckstein said. "He's been doing an excellent job."

La Russa has a deep bench, but Rodriguez is demanding playing time.

"You can't anoint somebody, the spot is too important," La Russa said. "But he's getting hits, he's getting on base."

Rodriguez bounced around in the minor leagues for a long time before a callup last July, so he's taking nothing for granted.

Rodriguez is a movable piece on the 40-man roster, with minor league options remaining, and he's emphatic in his belief that he hasn't done enough yet.

"I'm treating this like groundhog day, like this is my first day," Rodriguez said. "You can never be too comfortable up here, because if anything happens and they don't need you they can send you down.

"So I have to keep producing, and if I keep producing my name will still be up here."

Rodriguez made the postseason roster last fall but might have begun this year in the minors had Larry Bigbie not sustained a stress fracture of his left foot in spring training. Bigbie, who signed a $900,000 contract after being acquired from the Rockies in the Ray King deal, likely would have shared left field with So Taguchi.

Bigbie was activated last Monday, but he's made only one start. With Rodriguez playing so well, Taguchi also has had trouble finding playing time.

Rodriguez batted .295 with five homers and 24 RBIs in only 149 at-bats last year. La Russa sees a more relaxed player this year.

"He came in here last year feeling he had to do something dramatic to get playing time, and he did a nice job," La Russa said. "I think he's letting the game come to him more."

Last year, Rodriguez made a splash in the minors with 17 homers and 47 RBIs in only 34 games at Memphis. He hit two homers in his first six starts for the Cardinals, connecting off the Brewers' Ben Sheets and the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano.

This season, aside from one baserunning gaffe, his overall game has been much improved. The only area he's lacking in so far this season is power: He has no homers, although he did double to Tal's Hill in Houston's deep center.

"It's interesting that he doesn't have a home run yet, which nobody cares about," La Russa said. "I don't care."

Given an everyday job, Rodriguez believes he can hit 15-20 homers. Sharing the left-field job with Taguchi, Bigbie or even utility man Scott Spiezio, he'd have to downgrade those expectations.

His spot in the lineup also dictates an emphasis on setting the table for Albert Pujols, who leads the major leagues with 19 homers and 48 RBIs. Behind Pujols are Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, both beginning to heat up.

"It's fine with me, as long as I'm in the lineup," Rodriguez said. "Just getting on base any way I can."

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