Schumaker answers Cards' big question

Schumaker answers Cards' big question

The St. Louis Cardinals entered Spring Training with the top of their batting order a major question. The answer to that question quickly became Skip Schumaker.

"He had an outstanding spring, in every way there is to measure," manager Tony La Russa told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "The whole point of spring as far as the outfield is concerned was there isn't anybody competing better than he is, especially at the leadoff position."

Entering the spring, Schumaker wasn't even necessarily assured a starting job -- much less the opportunity to bat leadoff -- but his outstanding month has apparently helped him achieve both. Now, says his manager, he needs to be a table-setter for the likes of Chris Duncan, Albert Pujols, Rick Ankiel and Troy Glaus.

"The whole key [to the lineup] is that Skip has set up in the leadoff spot," said La Russa said. "I haven't had to mess around with different combinations because he's really come in and taken charge of that position. He gives us consistency there."

Schumaker is no stranger to the leadoff spot, and in winning the spot he's done exactly what he set out to do.

"That's where I'm most comfortable. I've been there my whole career since high school," he said. "I'm not foreign to it. I get in that spot and I try to get on base -- that's been my goal my entire career."

Francoeur likes the look of Braves: Jeff Francoeur is bullish on the Braves' chances this year. He thinks the team is destined for things better than the third-place finishes they have had the past two seasons.

"To me, there's an excitement about this team that we haven't had the last two years," Francoeur told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We'd all like to go out tonight and play well and send a message."

Francoeur's optimism is driven by Atlanta's depth and talent in every area.

"We've got not just a good team, but a team that's built to go beyond just making the playoffs," he said. "If we've got a guy go down, even for two or three weeks, we've got someone who'll come in and pick him up.

"That's something we didn't have before, at least while I've been here."

Hunter at home in road opener: Longtime Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter signed with the Los Angeles Angels as a free agent following the 2007 season. Hunter opened the season at the Metrodome, as the Angels traveled to Minnesota to begin their 2008 season against the Twins.

"I'm with a new squad; this is my team," Hunter told The Los Angeles Times. "I'm not here to be recognized; I'm here to cause havoc. I'm on the other side now. I loved the Twins, but I'm the enemy now."

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire had a different take on things.

"Just guessing, but the first at-bat, they'll rock the house," Gardenhire told The Los Angeles Times. "Second at-bat, it'll be a little less, and by the end of the game, when we're supposed to get him out, 'Arrrrrrgh!' I think he was pretty well-liked here, and I wouldn't think that would change."

The decision to leave Minnesota was a difficult one for Hunter.

"I was like, man, I can't believe I'm no longer with Minnesota -- I was with that organization since I was 17 years old," Hunter said. "It's like leaving home.

"Once you leave mama's house, you always think about home. Then it hits you five years later, 'I'm away from home, I'm grown, I don't need mom anymore.' But that first year, you miss mama -- you're homesick. I'm pretty sure I'm going to miss Minnesota."

Hunter is looking forward to getting the first meeting with the Twins out of the way but wonders how it happened that his return to Minnesota happened right away.

"Who set that up? How did that happen?" Hunter said. "I sign with the Angels and they open in Minnesota, the team I was with for 15 years? It's going to be different, but I'm glad I'm getting it out of the way early instead of going there in the middle of the season. I'm going to try my best to not be a distraction."

Blalock will anchor Rangers' order for now: Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington has announced that third baseman Hank Blalock will hit fourth in the lineup. It is a spot Blalock has hit in for most of the spring. However, Washington hopes to eventually slot Milton Bradley into the cleanup spot to break up the left-handed hitting Blalock and Josh Hamilton.

Bradley is recovering from offseason knee surgery, and Washington would like him to get a few more at-bats batting him fourth.

"Hank's been swinging a hot bat lately, and Milton's swing is not all the way there yet," Washington told The Dallas Morning News. "It's close, but it's not all the way there. I think this is the best lineup I can put out there right now."

Bradley will currently hit fifth for Texas and he will not play in the outfield during the team's opening road trip to Seattle and Anaheim.

Bush looks sharp in spring finale: Making his final start of the spring, Milwaukee pitcher Dave Bush appeared to be ready for the start of the season as he allowed just two runs in six innings of work against Kansas City.

"I tried to treat it as realistic as possible, knowing it doesn't count," Bush told The Milwaukee News Journal. "But I was treating it like I was going to go in and pitch a regular game and not really have a pitch count."

Bush used his two-seam fastball to set up his slider, curveball and changeup, something he hadn't done much in spring as he concentrated on one or two pitches during his outings.

"When you get starting pitching like that from both sides, you know it's time to start playing for real," Brewers manager Ned Yost said. "Dave Bush gave up a home run in the first inning but was nails after that. He had a very nice day."

Shields' big offseason ends with Opening Day start: It was a big offseason for Tampa Bay pitcher James Shields. Since the end of last season, he got married in Hawaii and signed a new contract that could last for seven years. And on Monday he pitched well in his Opening Day start against the Orioles, allowing just two earned runs over seven innings for the win.

"It's amazing the things that are starting to happen," Shields, 26, told The St. Petersburg Times. "That's unfortunate that Kaz had to go down, but I'm glad they have enough confidence in me to start Opening Day.

"Kaz will be back pretty soon ... and as soon as he gets back, I think we're going to be pretty good. And I think we're going to be able to hold the fort down until he gets back."

Shields went 12-8 last year with a 3.85 ERA, throwing 215 innings in the process. That total is the second most in team history.

"Two hundred innings, make all my starts, stay healthy," he said about his goals going into the season. "If I stay healthy, I think everything will fall into place for me. I'm just trying to get some wins for us, trying to get as deep into every ball game as I can and try to give us a chance to win every fifth day. That's my goal."

Anonymity suits Wuertz: While many players can manage to bring a lot of attention on themselves in Spring Training, Chicago Cubs pitcher Michael Wuertz is not among them. A key cog in the Cubs bullpen, Wuertz says that remaining generally anonymous is fine with him.

"That's the way I like it," Wuertz told The Chicago Sun-Times. "That's the way I've been my whole career. I've never done anything spectacular, but I take pride in going out there and taking the ball every opportunity I get and putting up zeroes on the board."

In 73 games in 2007, Wuertz posted a 3.48 ERA and stranded 33 of 38 inherited runners -- second best in the National League behind teammate Carlos Marmol.

"He's valuable to us, no question," said manager Lou Piniella. "He can pitch in that middle, and he can help with the setup roles when we're a little taxed. Hopefully, we're winning games with regularity and we'll be a little taxed in those setup roles."

Lewis is 'veteran rookie:' For Cleveland Indians pitcher Jensen Lewis, being on the team's Opening Day roster is an exciting experience. After being promoted to Cleveland last July, Lewis was 1-1 with a 2.15 ERA in 26 outings. Now he's going to open the season in the Major Leagues for the first time.

"Remember," Indians manager Eric Wedge told The Cleveland Plain Dealer, "this is Jensen's first big-league camp ever. He wasn't in camp with us last year."

Lewis says that he feels stuck between being a rookie and having been around for a while.

"It's pretty cool," said Lewis. "I kind of feel like a veteran rookie in the sense that I hit the ground running last year. But to be a part of this club on Opening Day is definitely something to feel proud of."

-- Red Line Editorial This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.