Womack - No risk, big payoff

Friday, July 23, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- Late in spring training, Tony Womack was a no-risk pickup for the St. Louis Cardinals.

So far, he's been a steal. Womack, seemingly on the downside of his career before this season, has filled huge holes at leadoff and second base for the NL's best team.

"All I wanted was a chance, because I knew I was ready to play," Womack said. "I just wanted an opportunity and they gave me that. I really appreciate it."

At the plate, the 34-year-old Womack has turned back the clock to his prime. He was batting .300 with a slap stroke and a patient, milk-the-count eye that has produced an on-base percentage of .351, a major improvement over last year when he hit a career-worst .226 for the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Cubs.

He's also been a disruptive force on the basepaths. Although Womack had only 14 steals to tie for the team lead with Reggie Sanders, and only two since May 28, his huge leads and fleet feet have helped distract pitchers facing the heart of the Cardinals' order. Plus, he's been caught only three times.

"That's what you look for at the top of the lineup, a guy that will spark the lineup," manager Tony La Russa said. "That's what he's done."

For four seasons, starting from his first full season in the majors in 1997, Womack averaged 59 steals per season. He led the NL three times in that stretch.

Womack got off to a blazing start this season with three steals in the opener and seven by April 20. He said his modest count since then is irrelevant, blaming the decline on pitchers' ever quicker moves to the plate that shave precious tenths of seconds.

Instead, he's been content lately to toy with the pitchers and wait for Edgar Renteria, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen to deliver.

"It defeats the purpose, running into an out, when you've got these guys hitting behind you," Womack said. "My whole career I pick and choose when I run; I don't just run to run.

"I've got to disrupt as much as I can, put some nervousness into them, and that's what I do."

Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny said Womack's lead off first base is one of the largest in the league, and that often is enough.

"You can see when he gets on that the infielders are all messed up," Matheny said. "He's got people on their toes and that often leads to holes being out there."

In the field, the biggest area of concern, Womack has been more than adequate. He's solid with the glove. and his arm has been improving following reconstructive surgery last October.

Womack said it's getting stronger "by the week" and is determined not to let it affect his game, even though he's bounced a lot of double play relays to first.

"I do what I can, and I don't think about it," he said. "If you want to play, you have to put it out of your head."

And, all he cost the Cardinals, who've never forgotten his series-clinching hit off Steve Kline for the Diamondbacks in the 2001 NL division series, was minor league pitcher Matt Duff in a March 20 deal with the Red Sox.

"Not really knowing what we were going to get, for him to come in and do what he's done has been a big plus," Matheny said. "He's hurt us before so we knew what he can do, and it's nice to have him going for us now."

Womack knew the Cardinals, disappointed in a spring training second base derby between Bo Hart and Marlon Anderson to fill the spot vacated by free agent Fernando Vina, were just taking a shot. But it was his shot.

"I don't care what people think, if I get an opportunity to play I can show them," Womack said. "I'm still young, and I'm still going at it.

"When you're healthy you can do anything, and for me that's all that matters."

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