Such is the case with former University of Arkansas pitching star Jess Todd, the St. Louis Cardinals 2008 minor league pitcher of the year and obviously someone who has the legendary skipper's attention.
"(Wednesday) was a good example," La Russa said of Todd's scoreless two-inning stint against the Detroit Tigers. "He did really well and he moved the ball around. He had different attacks and movement. He is very highly regarded because he is such a good competitor so many pitches he can come at you with."
Indeed, Todd (5-10, 210) is the rising pitching star in the Cardinals' organization, rising fast enough to be in the big league camp after getting drafted in the second round of the 2007 MLB draft following one spectacular season in Fayetteville.
During that year, he went 9-3 with a 2.89 ERA and set a single-game school record by striking out 17 South Carolina batters (including the first nine) in eight innings of work at the SEC Tournament.
He is rated as the fourth-best prospect in the St. Louis organization, according to Baseball America and sixth-best according to Scout.com.
About to turn 23 next month, Todd has pitched in four big league exhibition games this spring with the best the aforementioned game in which he fanned two, allowed one hit and didn't issue any free passes.
"I can't be satisfied with just being here," Todd said. "I had to come in with a mind set of trying to make it. I just need to do my very best, work hard and whatever happens, happens."
He was reassigned to the Cardinals' minor league camp on Monday along with seven other players.
Todd (0-1, 4.38) got the loss on Sunday against the Phillies when he allowed a run in the bottom of the ninth after pitching a scoreless eighth.
St. Louis catching prospect Matt Pagnozzi, nephew of former Arkansas and Cardinals star Tom Pagnozzi, has a great view of Todd's stuff.
He is a great young player who is just flying up the system," Pagnozzi said. "I have caught him a lot and his pitches just move all over the place and keep the hitters off balance."
"He's got a bright future, as you can see by being named the Minor League Pitcher of the Year," Pagnozzi said. "I look forward to catching him for a long time to come."
Todd gave up four hits and a run in 2 1/3 innings against the Orioles back on Feb. 26 and then two hits and a run in one inning against the New York Mets on March 3.
"Each time I have gone out there, I have gotten more comfortable with the situation and my pitches have started to come around," Todd said. "This last time was definitely the best. I felt strong and every thing was working for me. I just have to keep my head down and keep working hard."
Todd has three solid pitches in his arsenal right now - a 90-94 mph four-seamer, a hard mid-80s slider that's a put-away pitch and a circle change that moves like a splitter.
"He's pitcher of the year in the organization, everywhere he has been he has been a winner and is a guy we are watching closely," La Russa said. "Half the battle was to get some attention so people would watch him. Now they are watching closely and he'll be given a chance."
One of those watching him in camp this spring is famed St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan. Meanwhile, Cards ace Chris Carpenter and some of the other veteran pitchers have taken him under their wings.
"It's a great experience for him to be in a big league camp," La Russa said. "Guys like Chris Carpenter set a great example for him to learn and to be around Dunc and be coached by him is so very valuable to him."
Todd echoed that sentiment.
"You can learn so much from Coach Duncan and guys like Chris Carpenter, who are just so professional in their approach and have mastered what it is like to get yourself ready mentally and physically," Todd said. "It's an absolute gift for me and one that I soak up every thing that I am taught."
He is also very aware of being respectful to the veterans, who have their own section in the locker room, apart from where Todd and other prospects dress.
"The best thing you can do is take advantage of every thing you can while here, but don't come in with an attitude," Todd said. "I am very careful to make sure I am doing what a younger player needs to do in order to be respectful to the vets."
Todd went 4-1 with a 2.78 ERA in low Class A Batavia after signing in 2007, repeating his 9 up, 9 K effort in a five-inning stint.
The young hurler then found himself getting introduced to several different mound homes in 2008.
He started the year with high Class A Palm Beach where he was 3-0 with a 2.31 ERA while amassing 31 strikeouts to just five walks and being named to the Florida State League Mid-Season All-Star team.
Todd then jumped to Class AA Springfield, where he was 4-5 with a 3.23 ERA, was named to the Texas League All-Star team and got a chance to pitch against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in Springdale.
"That was great to be back around there and have that support from the Razorback fans," Todd said.
His shining performance there was when he took a perfect game into the seventh inning.
Although he lost that bid for perfection when he gave up a hit, he came right back in his next start and put up seven more scoreless innings to give him a 0.91 ERA at the time.
"You are definitely thinking about it, I don't care what anybody says," Todd said of the perfect game that was not to be. "You know what is on that scoreboard. I had all three pitches working for me. That doesn't happen very often and when it does, you have got to make something out of it."
He even got invited to the Futures Game, a showcase of MLB's top minor league prospects that was held in Yankees Stadium.
"A great thrill," Todd said. "It's a big reward for the all the work you put in."
Todd then finished up the season with a 1-1 mark and a 3.97 ERA at Class AAA Memphis.
Todd pitched 27 innings at Palm Beach, 103 at Springfield and with 22 2/3 in Memphis, where he is projected to begin this season as a starter.
"I guess you could say I got my feet wet there (Memphis) last year," Todd said. "Had five outings there so I got to see what it was about. It is definitely a bigger step than it was in AA. The guys one through nine all take great swings."
The Cards have not made a definite decision on whether to groom Todd as a starter or make him a big part of the back end of the their bullpen of the future.
He gets all the work he wants way before the exhibition games start at 1:05 p.m.
"We get a lot done on the outer fields before the game starts," Todd said. "We get out there about 9:30 and get back in here around 12. "We do a lot of defensive stuff, PFP (pitcher's fielding practice), just a lot of little stuff that makes you better."
Todd is on a faster track than former Razorback pitching teammate Nick Schmidt, who is with the San Diego Padres.
"I talk to Schmidt quite a bit," Todd said. "Actually I was in a restaurant the other day and he was on the MLB network throwing, so that was pretty cool."
Schmidt is coming off a 2008 season lost to injury.
"Everything has been going good for him," Todd said. "He has had some good outings with the Padres. He told me that he got sent down when they made their first cuts, but he has had a good spring training."
While extremely busy in the big-league camp, Todd is doing his best to keep up with the Razorbacks, who swept Florida this past weekend.
"I talk to (Razorback) Coach (Todd) Butler," Todd said. "He will call me every now and then, but now that the season is around for them, they are busy just like I am. Arkansas was a great place for me to play, great fans and I will never forget it."
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