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Cards need J.D. to stop breaking

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2002

Back problems, sprained ankles, strep throat, food poisoning and a broken hand.

Back problems, sprained ankles, strep throat, food poisoning and a broken hand.

The Cardinals see keeping the oft-injured J.D. Drew off the disabled list, where he spent so much time last season, as one key to contending in the National League.

"It's not even a daydream," manager Tony La Russa said. "It's just reality. There are certain things we need to happen, and J.D. being able to go to the post just about every game is part of it."

Drew hasn't played in more than 135 games in a season, accomplishing that in 2000, but has shown when healthy that he's an asset. A career .292 hitter, the 26-year-old out of Florida State set career highs with 27 home runs, 18 doubles and 73 RBIs in 109 games last season.

"It's not as if my injuries are from underpreparation," said Drew, who missed all but one day in July last season because of a David Wells fastball that broke a bone in his right hand. "I prepare myself as hard as I can in the offseason. But these things come with the territory a little."

After signing Drew to a one-year, $3.1-million contract during the offseason, the Cardinals hope he can stay healthy enough to solidify not only rightfield but the third spot in the batting order ahead of Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Tino Martinez.

Through 10 games this spring, Drew was batting .346 with two doubles, two homers and four RBIs despite being slowed by a sprained right ankle. He already has injured his left ankle twice. "If he's swinging well, he's the perfect third hitter," La Russa said. "If he struggles, you do something else. I don't think you lock yourself in. What if he's hitting .140?"

The more pressing concern may be keeping him off the DL.

ROOM TO IMPROVE: It's not beyond Mike Piazza to try to improve defensively. The Mets catcher spent a week during the offseason being tutored by former Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager.

"I don't ever expect to be Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate," said Piazza, who learned he was rushing his throws and could improve his positioning on plays at home. "But if there's one little piece of the game that can make me a better player, I'm committed to improve."

BATTING FIRST: Without Johnny Damon or Rickey Henderson around anymore, the A's are searching for a leadoff hitter.

That role could go to Jeremy Giambi.

"I'd love to bat leadoff," he said. "I take a lot of pitches anyway, so it doesn't really bother me. Getting on base was always a part of my game.'

Giambi's right. With one career stolen base, Giambi's appeal is his .391 on-base percentage last season and .369 career mark.

"We don't have anybody on the team with the kind of speed you'd think a leadoff hitter should have, so we have to look at it a little differently than most teams," manager Art Howe said. "Just get on base for the middle of the order."

UNEXPECTED OUTING: After working in the Brewers minor-league camp for the past few weeks, 19-year-old pitcher Mike Jones was called on to serve as an emergency reliever for Milwaukee's split-squad game against Seattle on March 10.

"I had no idea I'd be getting in," said Jones, the Brewers' No. 1 draft pick last year. "But that's really what they brought me over here for."

Brought in to face catcher James Horner to protect an 11-8 lead in the ninth, Jones struck Horner out on a 3-and-2 fastball and earned the save.

"He handled himself very well out there," manager Davey Lopes said. "Obviously, you'd rather not put a kid in that situation, but he did the job."

HANDS OFF: As Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter learned when he had a glove and bat lifted from his locker recently, personal items hold certain appeal to collectors outside the clubhouse.

Outfielder Ruben Rivera, released by the Yankees last week, was accused of stealing the items from Jeter's locker and selling them to a Seattle dealer for $2,500. The dealer returned the items after learning they were stolen.

"These days, you can't even throw your underwear away," pitcher Roger Clemens said. "You have to cut your number out of it, because they'll grab it. It sounds strange, but it happens."

INJURY OF THE WEEK: Marlins reliever Antonio Alfonseca, who has been mentioned in trade rumors involving the Orioles, Dodgers and Cubs, missed a relief outing Wednesday after cutting his hand while cleaning a glass at his apartment Tuesday night.

THE LAST WORD: Astros pitching coach Burt Hooten got a unique explanation from Billy Wagner during a visit to the mound after the pitcher had loaded the bases in a game last week.

"I just told him I'm working on something," Wagner said. "He asked me what, and I said, 'I'm trying to see what kind of pickle I can work myself into.' "

Wagner retired the next three.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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