CHICAGO - Four games are hardly a fair or indicative trial, but Cardinals right fielder Juan Encarnacion is struggling to get out of the gate in the early days of the season.

In Friday's 5-1 loss to the Cubs at a chilled, windswept Wrigley Field, Encarnacion had a forgettable day at the plate, in the field and on the bases.

Encarnacion had one hit in four at-bats but got nailed at first base after failing to scramble back to the bag on a long fly ball by Jim Edmonds in the fourth. Later, Encarnacion popped up to end the sixth, leaving David Eckstein in scoring position. Defensively, Encarnacion dropped a fly ball for an error in the eighth - but did immediately erase the mistake by throwing out Jacques Jones, who tried to advance to second on the misplay.

So far Encarnacion is batting .222. He's one for nine with runners in scoring position, and he's stranded 16 runners. Obviously, better days are ahead for the corner-outfield solution who signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Cardinals on Jan. 5.

"It's four games," manager Tony La Russa said. "I think it's a real bad analysis if you say anything other than he's only played four games. He's putting the ball in play. He's not overmatched at the plate. He's had RBI opportunities, and that's one of the reasons we like him in the No. 2 hole. He can do some damage there. And he will."

La Russa is gambling with Encarnacion in the 2 slot. He's hit there before, with other teams, to mixed results. But Encarnacion was at his best there in 2000, when he hit .307 with a .342 OBP and a .480 slugging percentage in 150 at-bats in the second spot.

La Russa and general manager Walt Jocketty liked Encarnacion's solid power, decent speed, strong arm and winning background. But there were holes in Encarnacion's game before he arrived in St. Louis. Before 2005, Encarnacion had a relatively low walk rate and a mediocre on-base percentage. And he's struck out 100 times or more in three seasons. Though generally praised for his outfield work, Encarnacion has had below-average Davenport defensive ratings every year since 1997.

But Encarnacion should help if he can show plate discipline and draw more walks instead of getting himself out. Sabermatricians have lots of numbers that reveal how many players peak at around age 26 or 27, but there are exceptions. Encarnacion posted an Equivalent Average of .279 last season - the best of his career - at age 29. (EqA measures production per out.) For the Cardinals to get their money's worth, Encarnacion must go against the trend and get better between the ages of 30-32.

"He's one of our core guys," La Russa said. "If he's not good enough, we're not good enough. But he'll play well for us."

As others see us

Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune:

"It's a good thing for the Cubs that St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. did not use the move into the new Busch Stadium to increase the payroll and raise the ante in the NL Central. In fact, rather than boost player salaries, the Cardinals start the season having cut them somewhat, according to USA Today. They're one of only seven teams spending less than they did a year ago. Maybe DeWitt was trying to do his part for competitive balance. While the Houston Astros had strong teams the last two years, the Cardinals still ran away with the division.

"And why not? St. Louis arguably has the best player in the league in Albert Pujols, the best pitcher in the league in Chris Carpenter and the best manager in the league in Tony La Russa. That's a tough combination to beat."

Reading time, three minutes

Free Mike Kitchen.

He's a highly capable coach. And I hope Kitchen gets the chance to show what he can do next season, coaching a Blues team that will have a legitimate payroll and much better talent. …

Lookalikes: Blues forward Keith Tkachuk, Cardinals reliever Braden Looper. KMOX is considering airing a Cardinals postgame show to compete with KTRS. It would be hosted by a combination of Wayne Hagin, Tom Ackerman and Mike Grimm. No decision has been made, however.

What about an NBA team for St. Louis? While researching his story on prospective Blues owner Dave Checketts, Post-Dispatch hockey writer Jeremy Rutherford posed that question to NBA Commissioner David Stern. "From a distance, the most honest answer I can give there: I think that the revenue from the building is essential to support the hockey team," Stern said. "I'm just not sure whether the incremental sponsor revenue - the TV revenue, the suite revenue and ticket revenue would be there to support an NBA team. It's possible, but I think it has to be proven first in the context of hockey. And obviously the team (under the previous ownership) was not operated at a profit. I won't preclude it, but I will give you the question that has to be answered."

When the Blues raise the banner at Savvis Center on Sunday to honor Al MacInnis, it will be the highlight of their season. Not only was MacInnis a great Blue and among the top defensemen in NHL history, but he set the standard for class and leadership. And his personality has been the ideal fit for St. Louis.

"The one thing what makes St. Louis what it is are the fans and the people," MacInnis said. "Not only do you hear it from hockey players, but you hear it from baseball players - it's a great place to play sports. With very sincere fans … all they ask for is an honest effort. To give them what you've got. And you can be visible in St. Louis and people are very appreciative. All they do is wish you the best."

La Russa likes the moves the Cubs made last offseason - primarily the acquisition of center fielder Juan Pierre, right fielder Jacques Jones and relievers Bobby Howry and Scott Eyre. "I like Pierre a lot," TLR said. "Jones was a guy we took a look at. And the bullpen is improved." … The Cubs opened the season with projected aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the disabled list (again). La Russa understands the frustration. "In the late '90s, we had two young guys who we thought were going to be very special," he said. "Alan Benes and Matt Morris. But they both got hurt, had surgery. And our starting pitching wasn't nearly the same."


On Monday, May 15, the Town and Country Police Department and the Des Peres Department of Public Safety will host the third annual "Greens for Green" Charity Golf Tournament at the Landings at Spirit Golf Club in Chesterfield. The past two tournaments helped raise more than $40,000 to benefit the BackStoppers, Missouri Special Olympics and other charitable organizations. The fee of $90 per golfer includes free prizes, lunch, drinks and dinner. A silent auction of sports memorabilia will be held. For info, call Paul Wilson or Jeff Myer at 314-432-4696.

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