VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Rick Ankiel has been swinging a bat since January, so perhaps it's no surprise that he's raking in mid-March.
Ankiel, who began working out at the Cardinals' Spring Training complex long before camp began, hit his second and third home runs of the spring on Friday afternoon at Dodgertown. He's batting .359 in Grapefruit League play, slugging .615 and leads the team with 14 base hits.
"I'm not sure," Ankiel said when asked if the early work is paying off. "For me, I feel like it was worth it."
Manager Tony La Russa, always loath to talk about home runs, simply praised Ankiel's approach at the plate. La Russa worries that if he talks up the long ball, his players will start trying to hit the ball out -- and if they start trying to go deep, they'll stop taking good at-bats.
"I just like the way he takes his at-bats whatever the situation," La Russa said. "He's trying to make something happen, and he's got a lot of talent to make it happen with. That's what wows me, the way he goes about it."
Ankiel projects as the likely starting center fielder for the Cardinals on Opening Day, unless prospect Colby Rasmus cracks the season-opening roster. Ankiel ripped 11 long balls in 172 big league at-bats last year, and a total of 43 jacks between St. Louis and Triple-A Memphis.
He does still need to improve his plate discipline, but he and La Russa believe that some progress will simply come with experience. As a former pitcher, Ankiel still only has 1,099 professional at-bats.
"I'm trying to be aggressive in the strike zone," Ankiel said. "I want to swing at strikes."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.