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Schumaker opening eyes with power

Schumaker opening eyes with power

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Skip Schumaker hit two home runs on Wednesday. Perhaps more remarkable, only one of them was wind-aided.

Schumaker, best known for his defense and speed, readily admits that he sees a fourth-outfielder career for himself when and if he establishes himself in the Major Leagues. But an offseason cram session with slugger Mark McGwire yielded a new wrinkle in Schumaker's hitting mechanics -- one that he hopes will make him a more potent offensive threat.

That's one of very few questions remaining about Schumaker's game at this point, though of course it's a major one. His defense in center field is absolutely Major League-ready. His dedication and work ethic are unimpeachable. He's well-regarded by youngsters and veterans alike, not to mention the coaching staff.

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If he can make himself into a Major League hitter, Schumaker will have a Major League career.

"If you hit, they find a place for you," Schumaker said after his outburst on Wednesday -- his first two-homer game since April 10, 2005, at Triple-A Memphis. "That's the way it is in the big leagues. People know I can play defense and run or whatever, but you've got to hit to make the team."

After his almost unprecedented power outburst on Thursday, Schumaker, who turned 27 on Saturday, stands at 9-for-19 on the spring. It's worth noting that 19 at-bats in August don't give you a true picture of a player's abilities, never mind 19 at-bats against the slivers of big-league teams that play in Grapefruit League games. But it's a lot better than if he were 2-for-19.

Schumaker comes to camp each year ready to play and ready to hit. His offseason work is driven toward competing for a job, starting at the beginning of Spring Training. He puts in extra work in drills, stays late, listens to what the veterans say. He doesn't even leave the bench when he's pulled from a game, instead sticking around until the final out. Those sorts of things won't win you a job, nor should they. But they could break a tie, if it comes to that.

"He's a great competitor, a very consistent player, the kind of player you win with," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "You know what you're going to get every day."

Schumaker hit .306 at Triple-A last season, but without many walks or much power. Then he went to Cuba with the Team USA, and things started to come around. Schumaker was one of the team's most effective offensive threats. He points to the aid of that club's hitting coach, Rick Eckstein, who will be his hitting coach once again if he's assigned to Memphis.

Then McGwire spent four days working with Schumaker and Chris Duncan, hammering home both mechanical and mental aspects of hitting.

"Three solid hours a day of just me and Dunc," Schumaker said. "That's a lot of swinging."

McGwire had Schumaker move his hands higher and further back on his swing. The idea is that rather than moving back, and then moving forward, energy will be conserved. Schumaker simply swings forward, rather than shifting and reshifting his weight. Additionally, he has more time to get to some pitches. He could have more power to the opposite field, if the adjustment truly takes.

"He just thought it would give me more power and more time to see the ball, not feel like I was getting beat all the time," Schumaker said. "It's tough to do, to change.

"It's more time to see the ball. [McGwire] didn't have much of a load when he was playing. He didn't believe in energy going back. He always thought all of your energy should be going forward, so he didn't have much of a load. I had a bigger load, so he changed that. It took me a while to believe in it, because it's six years of doing the same thing. It's tough."

But he's working on it, and so far, it's seeming to take. Now, the question is whether there's an opportunity for Schumaker. The odds aren't good, as long as everyone is healthy.

The Cardinals have five outfielders almost certain to be on the Opening Day roster if health permits: Jim Edmonds, Juan Encarnacion, Duncan, Preston Wilson and So Taguchi. John Rodriguez is another player who will be tough to send out, and Scott Spiezio can play the outfield as well.

If Edmonds and/or Encarnacion is unavailable, however, the equation changes. The list of legitimate center fielders is much shorter. It's Edmonds, Taguchi, and then Schumaker. Encarnacion acquitted himself competently in center last year, and La Russa maintains that he would be willing to play Wilson there. But only Edmonds is clearly superior to Schumaker as a defensive outfielder, and that's only if Edmonds is healthy.

Schumaker may need some help to make the team, and it's not the kind of help he wants. Edmonds is one of his greatest supporters, and the admiration is mutual.

"You have no idea how he's going to bounce back," Schumaker said. "But I've got faith in Jimmy. He's been hurt a lot before, and he's always bounced back fine."

But what then? The greater question is, what's Schumaker's long-term future? La Russa insists that he hates for a player to sell himself short. He wants Schumaker, and all of his players, believing they can be major contributors. Schumaker just thinks of his approach as pragmatism.

"I think it's everybody's dream to be an everyday player," he said. "But on this team, you've got to be realistic about it. You see who's out there -- Jimmy Edmonds is out there, and he's the best center fielder in the big leagues. So you've got to know your role on certain teams. If one day I get that chance, I'd love it. But it's just not realistic for me right now."

Then again, how realistic was the thought of two home runs in a game? The man who hit all of four homers in 2006 has already started surprising people -- maybe he can keep doing it.

Matthew Leach 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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