Izturis rebounds from defensive slump

Izturis rebounds from defensive slump

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa couldn't help himself. He had to gloat a little bit.

Asked on Sunday afternoon whether his team had played its best game of the spring to date, a gleeful La Russa offered a playful jab in response.

"Except we didn't catch the ball very well at short," he said, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

In the preceding three hours, Cardinals shortstop Cesar Izturis had played a dazzling defensive game, making at least three excellent plays, and each time converting a fine throw. A man who, for much of the spring, had more errors than hits showed on Sunday why he once won a Gold Glove.

Izturis had handled the questions about his spring struggles with grace, acknowledging he was unhappy with his defense and vowing to turn things around. La Russa consistently defended his shortstop's defense, arguing that the errors gave no true indication of what Izturis could do.

On Sunday, Izturis showed exactly what he could do. And even his staunchest supporter was wowed.

"I knew he could play," La Russa said, "but that's amazing."

It started right off, with the second batter of the game for the Mets. Luis Castillo hit a high chopper to the left side that Aaron Miles couldn't quite get to from third base. As the ball got past Miles, Izturis kept moving to his right, swallowed it up before it hit the ground a second time and made a superb throw to get the speedy Castillo at first.

This was the kind of play the Cardinals thought they'd be seeing regularly when they signed Izturis. He thought so too.

"You have a game like today, your confidence goes up," Izturis said. "Players and the team need confidence."

The next batter, David Wright, hit a screamer that took a very tough hop right in front of Izturis. He calmly, quietly gloved it and retired Wright easily. He handled still another tough hop and one more ball before the afternoon was out.

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Izturis' seven spring errors don't magically disappear from the ledger because of one good game in the field, of course. But the play on the field on Sunday reflected the expectations for Izturis, giving both player and manager a lift.

"A game like today, when I play good, I build confidence," Izturis said.

Izturis also picked up another base hit on Sunday. His offensive numbers, like his fielding percentage, remain distressingly low, but are inching towards respectability.

But it's not offense with which Izturis made his name. It won't be shocking if he offers limited production at the plate this year -- though the Cardinals hope he can return to his 2004 level, when he was a serviceable hitter with a .288/.330/.381 (batting average/on-base/slugging) line.

It's defense that the native of Venezuela is famous for. So a defensive slump, even in Spring Training, was disconcerting.

"Errors are part of the game," he said. "Strikeouts are part of the game. It's something you don't have control [over]. But you have to keep working on it, and hopefully that doesn't happen very often."

As frustrating as things got, La Russa always had Izturis' back. The manager repeatedly answered questions about his shortstop situation, and repeatedly said Izturis' defense was not an issue for him.

And that support stood out to Izturis.

"I feel good because of that. That makes you feel happy, makes you feel like you're on the team. Especially from your manager."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.