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Cards hoping Furcal rediscovers vintage form

Cards hoping Furcal rediscovers vintage form

Cards hoping Furcal rediscovers vintage form
JUPITER, Fla. -- As all teams do, the Cardinals arrived at Spring Training with some uncertainty, some questions and some concerns. Finding a fitting leadoff hitter was not among them.

But the assurance that the Cardinals had in Rafael Furcal when camp opened has clearly waned, putting manager Mike Matheny in a position where he is beginning to rethink the construction of a lineup that was, all along, expected to begin with Furcal.

Furcal, 34, was signed to a two-year, $14 million contract this offseason not only to stabilize the middle infield but to provide that leadoff spark. The latter has been absent all spring.

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"We saw a different Furcal in the last couple years than what you've seen that had the 5,000 at-bats in the leadoff spot," Matheny said, acknowledging the age effect. "I know that's who he wants to be. The game has a way of doing that to everybody as you get older. We're going to see some spots to where we want him at the top of the lineup. I know that is going to happen. Just right now, he's having trouble finding it."

That has led to Matheny recently dropping Furcal from the leadoff spot to the eighth hole, as the first-year manager did again in Thursday's 3-1 loss to the Marlins. Furcal went hitless in three at-bats in that game, lowering his spring average to .191, which is the lowest batting average among any of the Cardinals' projected starting position players. Furcal has also drawn just two walks, though he did show better patience on Thursday.

Not all has gone smoothly in the field, either, where Furcal has made a team-worst four errors.

"It's getting better," said Furcal, who has three hits in his last 19 at-bats. "I feel good right now. This Spring Training I haven't played the way I wanted to, but next week, when they turn the lights on, it'll be on."

Furcal cast aside speculation that health hindrances could be partially to blame for his flat spring, insisting that he feels fine. Matheny discarded this possibility as well.

Still, perhaps there is some correlation between Furcal's inability to put in a full offseason workout and conditioning program -- he sat out several weeks while recovering from an emergency appendectomy -- and this sluggish start.

"We're still trying to get Raffy right," Matheny said. "I don't think there's any medical element to it right now. He's just not right. It is Spring Training, and you'd like to give him all the time that he's going to need to get ready, but we're running out of that time. We've got to get that lineup ready for Opening Day."

That lineup will include Furcal, Matheny confirmed, shooting down any conjecture that Furcal could begin the year on the bench. But it's likely to feature Furcal batting much lower than the veteran shortstop anticipated when he re-signed with the organization in December.

Daniel Descalso led off on Thursday and is among the team leaders in on-base percentage this spring. He's shown the patience desired by the hitter the Cardinals end up putting in front of Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and David Freese. Yet, Descalso isn't even assured of a regular starting job, since Tyler Greene is also in that mix for playing time at second base.

"I feel pretty good," said Descalso, who is batting .294 with 12 walks this spring. "I've been seeing the ball pretty good, having good at-bats. I feel good up there."

Greene and Jon Jay have experience hitting in that top spot, too, and are also candidates to slot in there.

"I love being at the top, being able to get on base and use my speed," Greene said. "It would definitely be something not out of the ordinary for myself."

Said Jay: "I'm not up there trying to hit home runs or do something crazy. I go up there, work the count, hit line drives and get on base."

Furcal has spent his career being a pesky tablesetter at this level. Of the 1,428 Major League games he has started, he has hit in the leadoff spot in 1,287 of them. He's made just 31 career starts hitting eighth.

He toed the company line, however, in saying that he has no preference on where he bats this season.

"You know what, it's no problem," Furcal said. "They understand that I can help the team [by] playing every day. For me, it doesn't matter [where I hit] because I know the manager, I know the coaches, and they know what they're doing. I'm here to help win games."

Matheny said that he anticipates stability in the leadoff spot being trumped by the hot hand. In other words, he'll liberally make lineup changes so as to set the middle of his order up for the most RBI opportunities.

While the Cardinals have every intention of beginning the season with Furcal as their everyday shortstop, the Cardinals are prepared with a contingency plan should Furcal's spring woes carry over into April. Greene, who has been working almost exclusively at second this spring, will get some playing time at shortstop, his natural position, before camp ends. If needed, Greene could shift to short and Descalso could play second.

The Cardinals' hope, of course, is that such a decision never has to be seriously considered, that Furcal will, indeed, turn things on once the team exits Florida, and that he can avoid the injury issues that have cost him significant playing time in three out of the last four seasons.

"I know there's another gear," Matheny said of Furcal. "He knows there's another gear. He's not throttling back, he just hasn't hit it yet. I'd love to see the Furcal that we've seen in the past. He still has that. It's just going to be getting it out of him, him feeling right and getting the confidence going."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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