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Erstad helps to set the tone at the top

Erstad helps to set the tone at the top

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Friday's first two hitters in the White Sox lineup facing the Cubs at Tucson Electric Park might become the norm on offense rather than a rare exception during the upcoming 2007 regular season.

Scott Podsednik, making his first Cactus League appearance in his ongoing recovery from January sports hernia surgery, served in his regular role as the team's leadoff hitter and left fielder. Darin Erstad, the veteran who came to the White Sox just prior to SoxFest via a one-year, $1 million deal, hit second and started in center field.

Ask Erstad about the importance of soon getting the official nod as one of the White Sox two starting outfielders next to Jermaine Dye, and he will quickly respond that his first priority is whatever stands out as best for the team. The decision rests with Ozzie Guillen whether Erstad starts in left, center or comes off the bench.

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But ask the same question of the White Sox manager and he comes pretty close to guaranteeing Erstad a starting spot. Guillen still needs to figure out how his final roster is going to break down, but he already has plans for Erstad and his grinder-style of play to be out on the field as much as possible.

"I don't know how we are going to play him, but he will play," said Guillen of Erstad, prior to Friday's contest against the Cubs in which Erstad finished 0-for-4, dropping his spring average to .317. "We are going to find a place to play him.

"Erstad will get his at-bats, and I will try to play him as an everyday player," Guillen added.

When Erstad selected the White Sox over an offer from the Florida Marlins, the South Siders knew they had a chance to make off with one of the steals of the free-agent market, if Erstad only could stay healthy. As Spring Training 2007 comes within two weeks of its final farewell, Erstad and his new team have absolutely no complaints with his condition.

In fact, each day during Spring Training, Guillen has followed the same basic process. He asks Erstad if there's any residual soreness from the previous day's action in his right ankle, an area in which he had a bone spur removed through arthroscopic surgery back in October after the problem limited Erstad to 95 at-bats with the Angels in 2006. Guillen then follows up by asking how Erstad is feeling overall.

The answer always comes back extremely positive. Guillen doesn't want to make it seem as if he's checking up on the veteran outfielder or doesn't believe his response and basically understands that with the all-out approach employed by Erstad, he's always going to come up a little sore.

"Right now, he shows me that he never has anything wrong," said Guillen of Erstad. "What really has impressed me is the way he is running, but what really impressed me is the way he plays. He plays the way everyone should play."

That last line uttered by Guillen in reference to Erstad's style of play has been used countless times by countless people within the organization since his arrival. But Erstad stands as a very important piece to the overall lineup equation for the White Sox.

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Here is a two-time All-Star who arguably had one of the best seasons in baseball history for a leadoff hitter, with a .355 average produced in 676 at-bats during the 2000 campaign, along with 240 hits, 25 home runs and 100 RBIs. He even added 28 stolen bases for good measure during that jaw-dropping effort.

White Sox expectations aren't quite that high for Erstad in 2007 and beyond, but if he succeeds at the top of the lineup, Guillen has the flexibility to move Tadahito Iguchi lower in the order and take advantage of the second baseman's power and base-stealing ability. Erstad also provides the perfect sounding board for Podsednik, who took another strong step toward an Opening Day return with one hit and one RBI against the Cubs.

Although Pablo Ozuna usually led off against southpaws during the final month of 2006, Podsednik never really had another experienced leadoff man to talk about the demands placed on one of the toughest positions in the game. In just a few weeks together in Arizona, Podsednik already understands what a valuable source of knowledge Erstad could become.

"Without a question," said Podsednik of benefiting from Erstad's presence. "This guy has hit No. 1 in the lineup. He's hit No. 2 in the lineup. He's been around the game for a number of years. I can do nothing but learn from him. We've already established a pretty good relationship, communication about the top of the order and what we have to do out there to be successful.

"It's going to be great for us. I'm excited about it right now, but I was excited during the offseason when we acquired him."

A main source of excitement for Erstad simply comes from how good he feels on a daily basis. On March 13, 2006, Erstad was sidelined by pain in his right ankle caused by the bone spur and missed the Angels' next eight Cactus League games.

At the time, Erstad said he would have played through the pain if it came during the regular season but was sitting out just as a Spring Training precaution. Erstad also had to deal with soreness in his left shoulder after moving from first base back to the outfield.

None of those issues are presently points of concern for Erstad. He feels sound across the board, and while there's always room for improvement, the anticipation of the new season fast approaching can be heard in Erstad's voice.

The anticipation also has to be high for the middle of the order having table setters such as Podsednik and Erstad in front of them, as long as they remain in good condition.

"It's a new team, a whole new chapter, and I couldn't be any happier or more excited," Erstad said. "I didn't look too far ahead and I'm still not looking too far ahead, but the biggest thing for me is I'm pain-free and I can't say it's been like that since March 13 of last year, to be exact. It's been nice and hopefully it stays that way."

"This guy does what it takes to win," added Podsednik of Erstad. "He's been there, won a championship, and he's a gamer. The more guys pulling on that same rope, the better for our team."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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