Duncan back in lineup vs. Astros

Duncan back in lineup vs. Astros

HOUSTON -- Everything added up just right for Chris Duncan, so the Cardinals outfielder returned to the lineup on Monday for the first time since Opening Day.

Never mind that the Astros sent a left-hander to the mound in the series opener at Minute Maid Park. Duncan has thrived against Houston pitching, and he's been particularly dangerous at the Astros' cozy ballpark. And the lefty starting for the 'Stros, Wandy Rodriguez, has retired Duncan only once in four plate appearances.

"He's ready to go," manager Tony La Russa said on Monday afternoon. "I don't want to hold him back if he's ready to go. He was one of our better guys against the Astros. It's time to bring him out."

Duncan encountered some soreness in his left hamstring during the Cardinals' April 1 opener against the Rockies. He finished out the game, but was held out of the next three contests. He pinch-hit on Saturday but was removed for a pinch-runner.

Still, he and La Russa both said there are no restrictions on Duncan at this point. And it certainly helps that the weather in Houston -- with highs in the 80s on Monday -- is milder than what the Cardinals encountered at home last week.

It's been a frustrating year for Duncan so far. He missed the end of 2007 after surgery for a sports hernia, and each time he's seemed to find something at the plate in '08, he's come down with another malady. He missed time early in Spring Training with a back injury, and after he came on strong at the end of camp, he sustained the hamstring injury.

"I think having that hernia surgery in the offseason, it kind of was hard for me to get in shape for the season," Duncan said. "I had to really work hard to try to be ready for Spring Training. It was hard for me to get my legs in shape. I was kind of behind.

"So I went into spring and I felt like I got ready just in time, and maybe physically I wasn't in as good a shape as I usually am. So maybe because of that some little things happened."

If Duncan is going to get sorted out anywhere, though, it's Houston. He hit .367 against the Astros in 2007, and for his career he's at .321 against the Redbirds' rivals from the south. In 36 career at-bats at Minute Maid Park, Duncan has 11 hits, four home runs and 10 RBIs.

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