La Russa appreciates Izturis' glove at short

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- When the St. Louis Cardinals placed shortstop Cesar Izturis on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right hamstring, the average fan might have surmised it a minor loss.

The light-hitting Izturis was batting .241 with one home run and 12 RBIs before going on the DL on Sunday. He usually bats ninth as the bottom-of-the-order second leadoff man for Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

His glove work provides value well beyond those numbers. La Russa insists Izturis is in the same class as former Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen, a seven-time Gold Glover.

"I enjoy watching him catch the ball at short as much as I did watching Scott play third," La Russa said. "He's exceptional."

The 28-year-old Izturis was a budget free agent replacement for David Eckstein, getting a $2.85 million one-year deal. Until this season, Izturis hadn't played regularly since 2005. When he had more errors than hits for most of spring training, La Russa constantly was defending him.

Over time, Izturis has given the team its best defense at the position since Ozzie Smith. No offense to Eckstein, Edgar Renteria or Royce Clayton.

"He's just done everything we could have asked," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "When we went down this path this winter, we really wanted to shore up the middle, and Cesar is a very smooth-fielding shortstop."

Middle infielder Aaron Miles is among Izturis' biggest fans.

"He's the hit stealer," Miles said. "He's a thief. He used to steal them from me when he was with the Dodgers and I was with the Rockies.

"Stealing hits is like stealing money, so yeah, I call him the hit stealer."

Izturis, a Gold Glove winner in 2004 and an NL All-Star in '05, but dogged by injuries the previous two seasons, has felt comfortable with his new team from the start. La Russa's support was a big plus, and he's made 56 starts.

"Tony, he's been great to me," Izturis said. "This game is all about confidence. You have to be positive, and coming from him, it felt good. And I'm here."

Health has been the key to his resurgence, until now, with hamstring injuries sidelining him for the third time in his career. Depth issues forced the Cardinals, who have been carrying 13 pitchers, to place Izturis on the DL with what they believe is a relatively minor injury after he was hurt while backpedaling for a pop fly Friday.

Mozeliak said team medical personnel aren't convinced Izturis will be ready within a week, though, plus Yadier Molina played catcher for the first time since sustaining a mild concussion a week earlier in Sunday's extra-inning loss at Boston.

Outfielder Nick Stavinoha, whose contract was purchased from Class AAA Memphis, has caught in the past and provides insurance at that position.

"We also were able to bring up a young, hot hitter," Mozeliak said.

For now, the Cardinals have options at shortstop with Brendan Ryan and Miles more than able fill-ins. La Russa won't forget Izturis.

"He's a good, smart, winning player," La Russa said. "I watched him all spring and went 'Wow, this guy's a plus player.'"

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