Best Teams Bring Out The Best In Vina

July 23, 2001

AP Sports Writer

ST. LOUIS (AP) - This is the St. Louis Cardinals' chance to gain ground onthe NL Central leaders, which also means it's Fernando Vina's time to shine.

The leadoff hitter is batting .308 and is enjoying a Gold Glove-caliber yearat second base.

But teams such as the Houston Astros - who come to town Tuesday, five gamesahead of the Cardinals - and the first-place Cubs - seven games up with aweekend series in Chicago looming - that turn him into a real star.

'It pumps you up a little bit,' Vina said. 'You get excited to play thebest teams, you get fired up.

'There's so many games in a season, but those games you want to bring yourbest game.'

He's been a tremendous run-producer against Chicago, batting .410(16-for-39) with a home run and 11 of his 33 RBIs. Against the Astros, he'sbatting .314 (11-for-35).

Look at the top of the standings around the majors, and you'll see the samestory. He's batting .400 (10-for-25) against the NL West-leading ArizonaDiamondbacks, he's 5-for-9 against the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins, andhe's 4-for-14 against the Atlanta Braves, who are atop the NL East.

In 27 overall starts against the Astros, Cubs and first-place teams in theNL's other two divisions, he's batting .387 with 17 RBIs. He has at least onehit in all but one of the games.

Not that he's been bad against the also-rans. Manager Tony La Russa oftencompliments Vina on his dogged determination.

'You watch him every day and I don't think you'll ever see a difference,'La Russa said. 'His at-bats look exactly the same whether he's got three hitsor two hits or one or none.

'He plays the same every day and that to me is a huge premium because youplay six or seven days a week.'

Getting Vina from the Brewers before the 2000 season was a steal for generalmanager Walt Jocketty, who had to give up only reliever Juan Acevedo and twominor leaguers. Vina is among the league leaders in singles, triples, times hitby pitch and hits.

At second base, he might have the quickest double-play pivot in the game. Hemakes the catch and the throw in virtually the same motion.

'Nobody is better than Fernando,' said shortstop Edgar Renteria, whoselocker is next to Vina's. 'I've never said that before, so I hope he doesn'tget a big head.

'Nobody in St. Louis has ever turned a double play like him.'

Vina, who has only four errors this season, said winning a Gold Glove wouldbe a 'dream come true.'

He's been honing the pivot since his childhood.

'I definitely take a lot of pride in my defense,' Vina said. 'I just tryto make sure the ball doesn't stay in my glove too long.

'As I got older and older, I got smoother and people started noticing.'

Vina has a knack for jump-starting the Cardinals. He doesn't mind taking onefor the team, leading the major leagues last season by getting hit 28 times. Hegot plunked for the 15th time this season on Saturday night.

He doesn't mind that he's been hit so many times he ranks second in majorsbehind Craig Biggio, who has been hit 22 times.

'I think teams are hearing that I don't like to move out of the way,' Vinasaid. 'They'll come in, but they're not coming way in off the plate.

'That's part of my game, but anytime you can avoid those bruises it's agood thing.'

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