JUPITER, Fla. (AP) -- This time last year, Joe Mather was a heralded prospect competing for the starting third base job. After a year rendered moot by injuries, he's entered this spring with far less fanfare.
That's a little surprising considering he's essentially in the same position as a year ago.
"It happens," Mather said. "Guys get hurt and other guys come up and you are kind of forgotten until you prove you can do it again," Mather said.
Like last spring, Mather is battling David Freese for the starting job at third, only this year he's healthy. Mather earned his first major league call-up in 2008, hitting .241 with eight home runs in 133 plate appearances before breaking the hamate bone in his left hand in September.
He never fully recovered from the ensuing surgery and ended up starting 2009 at Triple-A Memphis. Struggling with a wrist injury on the same hand, Mather didn't make it back to the majors. He opted for surgery to repair the cartilage in June, ending his season.
"It was very disappointing," Mather said. "It wasn't the end result that I wanted. It happens. Guys get hurt all the time. It was a great learning experience. I had a great time watching the team play."
Mather's key to entering this spring healthy?
"I took off quite a bit of time after the season this year," he said. "I didn't start swinging until the middle of January, didn't really start running until December."
Mather is making up for any lost time by spending extra hours with Cardinals' hitting coach Mark McGwire in the batting cage. Much of that time is spent listening and observing.
"I try to get a piece of Mac everyday," Mather said. "He's pretty good at what he's doing now. He was a good hitter and he's just as good as a hitting coach. I try to get a little tip from him every day."
While Mather said he'd be "excited" to be named the everyday third baseman, that's not his only shot at making the club out of spring. Mather split his time between third, first and the outfield during his 54 games with the Cardinals in 2008.
He hasn't been an everyday third baseman since 2004 at the Class A level.
"I think he's in a special category as far as being a plus potentially at several spots and in different parts of the game," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "The No. 1 thing he needs to establish is he's healthy and he's got his game together. If he does, his chances to make this club are improved."
The Cardinals' signing of utility man Felipe Lopez on Saturday doesn't preclude Mather from making the big league club in a similar role.
"You need more than one guy," La Russa said. "You can never get away with one guy."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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