La Russa - Redbirds' arms ahead of last year

Monday, March 1, 2004

JUPITER, Fla. -- With the opening of the exhibition season Tuesday against Florida Atlantic University, St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa says his pitching situation, one of the preseason major question marks, is encouraging.

"Even Woody (right-hander Woody Williams who came to camp with shoulder tendinitis)had a very good throw yesterday and has shown some progress," La Russa said Sunday at the Roger Dean Stadium training complex.

"We are in better shape right now with our starters and relievers than we were at this time last spring" La Russa said. "So that is a big plus for us when you talk about competing."

One of the pitchers who has the Cardinal manager encouraged is former Cardinal right-hander Alan Benes, who signed a free-agent contract in December after playing with several clubs since 2002.

"Well, I didn't know what to expect with Alan coming back to camp," pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "I've been pleasantly surprised. "I've been very impressed with how he is throwing the ball, very impressed with the way he is going about his business."

Benes credits his success so far to his attitude.

"I feel mentally and physically better, more so mentally," Benes said after Sunday's workout. "I feel I can go out and compete and get guys out again. The past three or four years I felt a little tentative, a little reserved.

"Not knowing that your stuff was good enough, when you feel like that there is a reason for it and that is usually because you are a little bit short," he added.

Duncan agrees that the mental part is important.

"I look at him now and he is doing things that he didn't do before," Duncan said. "He has better movement on the ball, a better breaking ball and his velocity is back. I think he is more confident because he looks at himself and sees a pitcher that can get major league hitters out."

After an outstanding rookie season in 1996 when he was 13-10, Benes was 9-9 with a 2.98 ERA when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in July 1997.

His partially torn rotator cuff, damaged cartilage and looseness in his right shoulder required surgery twice in 1997.

Since then the 6-foot-5 right-hander has never reached the form of his first two seasons. Benes has played for four different minor league teams, pitching more than 100 innings three times, with his best season coming at Memphis in 2001 when he was 7-6 with a 3.55 ERA in 142 innings pitched.

He pitched for the Chicago Cubs in 2002 and 2003, was traded to Texas last season and returned to the Cubs in June in a minor league trade.

Benes returned to the Cardinals in December, signing as a free agent, and is currently a nonroster invitee.

CAMP NOTES: Veteran left-handed reliever Steve Kline showed up at practice Sunday with a slight limp. "Steve goes through little periods with aches," La Russa said. "He is scheduled to pitch today so we will restrict him to just throwing."

Kline threw 10 minutes of batting practice and appeared in form.

--Randy Flores, a left-hander who was 10-8 at Colorado Springs last year, will start against Florida Atlantic and will be followed by five or six other pitchers, La Russa said. Among those slated to pitch are Matt Duff, 4-2 at Memphis, and Allen Levrault, who had a brief stint with the world champion Florida Marlins in 2003 when he pitched 28 innings in 19 appearances with a 1-0 record and 3.86 ERA.

--La Russa will take a look at position players competing for spots on the Cardinal roster in the game against Florida Atlantic. "I know that Florida Atlantic will be ready to play so the Cardinals better be ready to play too," La Russa said

A Cardinal spokesman called the Florida Atlantic game, "an exhibition exhibition game" noting this is the first time St. Louis has played a college team at the start of spring training.

--With about eight players in the hunt for the open left-field position, La Russa said, "There are no restrictions. Whoever plays the best, plays the most."

--St. Louis opens the Grapefruit League season Thursday at Jupiter against the New York Mets.

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