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McClellan opens eyes in spring debut

McClellan opens eyes in spring debut

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JUPITER, Fla. -- First, Kyle McClellan caught the eyes of the prospect hounds with a big year in relief in 2007. Then McClellan drew the notice of Cardinals coaches, as he threw strike after strike at four different speeds during the early weeks of camp. Now, even scouts are taking notice of the right-hander.

Late in Sunday afternoon's Cardinals-Marlins Grapefruit League game, a scout trekked up to the press box of Roger Dean Stadium with one purpose -- to find out just who the heck this kid was. Why did he only pitch 59 2/3 innings last year? What was the injury that sidelined him?

Told that the Cardinals like the kid a lot, the scout didn't hesitate.

"I can see why," the scout said. "I like him too."

So that makes it pretty much unanimous: coaches, scouts, even the hometown fans -- because McClellan is a local boy trying to make good. He hails from Florissant, Mo., just north of St. Louis, and attended Hazelwood West High School. For the spring, he's a teammate of Chris Carpenter, Albert Pujols, Jason Isringhausen and Yadier Molina. The rest of the year, he's also a fan of the St. Louis stars.

"I've been a huge Cardinals fan ever since I was a little kid," McClellan said after throwing three shutout innings in his Grapefruit League debut.

"But I think the professional side of it takes over. It's still the game I've been playing since I was 3. The names on the back are just that; they're names. It's the same game. I have to make the same pitches. I sat in the locker room today, and I just looked at the names -- Pujols, Molina -- and I wasn't overwhelmed by it. And I'm glad about that."

McClellan features an impressive big league repertoire of pitches. He gets a heavy sinker into the 90s, offsets it with a cut fastball and a curveball, and has a developing changeup. He can throw them all for strikes, and they all come at different speeds. Mix that with the poise he showed in his first game pitching in a Major League uniform, and you've got something that looks a lot like a pitcher.

"He threw pretty good," said Molina. "He's got good control. He's got the talent to pitch in the big leagues."

McClellan's first inning was very nearly disastrous. Hanley Ramirez led off the game with a single to center, and Dan Uggla doubled to right field. But Ramirez was thrown out trying to score on the double, giving McClellan his first out. When Jorge Cantu followed a screamer to shortstop, Uggla was doubled off and the inning was over.

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Three well-hit balls, but McClellan was unscathed. From there, the righty took control of things. He struck out Josh Willingham, Tagg Bozied and Matt Treanor and retired the last seven batters he faced. McClellan finished the game with three shutout innings, two hits, no walks and three strikeouts.

"I wasn't really nervous," he said. "I just think I was a little excited that first inning. I think I was staying within myself. It was just that a little adrenaline took over that first inning. ... Get that out of the way, and I kind of got to take a deep breath and look up at the scoreboard and there's still a zero up there. That's what you're after."

He needed all of 32 pitches to get nine outs, and 22 of those were strikes.

Still, one of manager Tony La Russa's favorite sayings is never to fall in or out of love too early in Spring Training. McClellan split last year between Class A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield, pitching in relief all along. He's three years removed from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery and two years from a second significant elbow operation.

It's a bit too soon to be crowning McClellan as the savior of the Cardinals' pitching staff -- or even a member of it. But he's handled everything thrown at him thus far, and it looks like he'll get another chance or two before he's shipped to the Minors.

"My goal coming into Spring Training was to get attention," he said. "You come in and you want to get attention so that wherever you go, if you don't make the big league team, you want to be the first guy if something happens."

Thus far, he's accomplished his goal.

"It gives you the feeling that if you gave him another assignment, he would do well again," La Russa said.

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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