Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Leading Question: Can Anyone Hit First?

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Leading Question: Can Anyone Hit First?

Article excerpt

Contrary to popular belief - including that inside their clubhouse - the Cardinals have all the ingredients for a terrific leadoff batter.

A guy who will show impressive patience at the plate. A guy who can drive a fastball in the gap or even over the fence, who can deliver in clutch situations. A guy with swift legs and the ability to turn a walk into extra bases. A veteran able to spark the home crowd into a frenzy just by leaving the on-deck circle.

Oh, do you want all of that in one leadoff batter?

So that's the problem!

"We don't have a true leadoff guy on this team," right fielder Brian Jordan said.

Tony La Russa wrote out hundreds of lineup cards in Oakland with Rickey Henderson's name at the top. Now with the Cardinals, La Russa is still searching for someone to play the lead role.

In La Russa's search, some of the tryouts came by default:

Mark Sweeney showed splendid patience during his brief recent time there. He was batting .333 with a .467 on-base percentage before a one-fo r-12 skid his last three games.

Brian Jordan showed impressive power and run-producing ability last year, and he has speed.

Royce Clayton leads the Cardinals with 12 stolen bases and has looked aggressive once he gets on.

Veterans Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith send remarkable energy through the Busch Stadium crowd.

But . . . McGee and Smith don't play regularly any more. Clayton has been unable to get on base much in his chances to lead off. Jordan has battled a thumb injury and a lack of patience while hitting elsewhere in the lineup. Sweeney lacks speed and will return to the bench when Ron Gant comes off the disabled list and returns to left field.

All of that helps explain the Cardinals' cumulative .226 batting average from their leadoff batters. The rest of the National League's leadoff batters are hitting .261.

La Russa figures a good leadoff batter will reach base 40 percent of the time. Most managers will settle for something less, because NL leadoff batters have a cumulative .331 on-base percentage this season.

Cardinals leadoff batters have a .306 on-base percentage.

"It's not just that he's leading off an inning," La Russa said. "It's because every time he goes to bat, he's preceding what should be the best hitters on your team. So the key for a leadoff guy is on-base percentage."

That's why the Cardinals thrived recently when Sweeney got hot at the top. "I'm not a Vince Coleman," Sweeney said. "But I was having a lot of fun being in there. I'm sure when they'd see me step in the box, some people would sit up in the stands saying, `What is he doing in that spot?' "

He reached base 10 times in 19 plate appearances during four games of a five-game winning streak. McGee led off the fifth game and reached base three times in five trips.

"I've always been a hitter who was patient and walked a little more than most," said Sweeney, who rarely has batted leadoff in his life. …

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