Williams finds old form after spring bout with tendinitis

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- It took three months and a stretch of white-hot pitching for Woody Williams to battle back to the break-even point.

That's the direct result of a lost spring training.

The St. Louis Cardinals' right-hander was limited to only five innings in Florida due to shoulder tendinitis. Gamely, he began the season in the rotation, but it's only been in the last few weeks that he's felt like himself.

"It's been a long road, no doubt about it," Williams said. "I'm just going to continue to work hard, and hopefully good things will happen."

Williams lost five of his first six decisions while making do with less than full extension on his delivery. Now he's reached his comfort zone and the results show it: He's 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA in his last four starts.

Overall, he's 6-6 with a 4.18 ERA heading into today's start against the Cincinnati Reds.

"This game is hard enough as it is, but trying to stay at a competitive level and be as good as you can when you're fighting something like that is amazingly tough to do," catcher Mike Matheny said. "He's done a good job of just going through his business, doing his work, working with the trainers trying to get better.

"He was confident that eventually he would be back to his old form."

Williams' last appearance was his most impressive of the season, considering he resumed pitching in the third inning after a two-hour rain delay against the Seattle Mariners on Friday. That's almost unheard of.

Pitching coach Dave Duncan couldn't recall ever trying that tactic before.

Not only that, Williams was perhaps better after the delay than before it while working six stingy innings, allowing one run on three hits and retiring 18 of the last 20 batters he faced.

"I told him, if at any point you don't feel right then it's time to get you because it's not worth the risk," manager Tony La Russa said. "But we had the right guy pitching. He knows himself."

Instead of playing cards or settling into his locker stall during the delay, Williams stayed on his feet and close to the field.

"I didn't want to get too comfortable," Williams said. "I just didn't allow myself to get away from the game.

"I was still focused and knew what I had to do. I expected to go back out and I'm just glad they made it a non-issue."

Because of his limited work in Florida, Williams' early-season starts were something of a personal spring training for him. The Cardinals just had to be patient for Williams, coming off a career-best 18-win season, to come around.

"He had to get his conditioning under competition," Duncan said.

Williams lasted only three innings in his season debut and took his lumps often, allowing seven runs in 5 2-3 innings against the Rockies, five runs in six innings at Philadelphia and seven more runs in five innings at Chicago.

"If I wouldn't have felt I was ready to pitch and get hitters out, I wouldn't have done it," Williams said. "If I was able to hit spots maybe two different times in each game it would have been a drastically different outcome."

His last four starts have been like the Williams who was the major surprise of the 2001 season after arriving in a trade of spare parts from the Padres that sent Ray Lankford to San Diego. He was 7-1 with a 2.28 ERA in 11 starts to help propel the Cardinals to the postseason, and in his fourth season he's 40-20 with St. Louis.

"He's not going to overpower you but he's going to show you a lot of different looks and a lot of different pitches," said the Mariners' Bret Boone said. "He goes out there and he competes."

And he's ready to build on all of his recent success.

"Watch him," Matheny said. "He's making good pitches, he's working the bottom of the zone and he's got good, late life."

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