Here on Sunday, just over a week prior to their home opener, the Cardinals players aren't the only ones acutely interested in taking a good, hard look at the new Busch Stadium. So is the coaching staff.
Joe Pettini is starting his fifth season as the Cardinals bench coach and Jose Oquendo has six full major league campaigns under his belt manning the third base coaching box for the team.
As a versatile middle infielder, Oquendo's fame as the Cardinals' "Secret Weapon" for ten years from 1986 to 1995 is well-remembered by fans and opponents alike. But, Pettini also has significant experience on the infield. He logged 188 major league games in the early ‘80's at second base, shortstop and third base with the San Francisco Giants before ending his playing days with the Cardinals Triple-A affiliate, then in Louisville.
These two former major-leaguers share an acute interest in the art of defensive positioning. While going unnoticed by many fans, knowledge of the pitcher, the hitter, the field conditions and more enables the coaches to establish a defensive plan for every possible game situation.
These plans include a book of photographic references for every ballpark in which the Cardinals play. By establishing the proper positions at which the fielders should stand when playing "straightaway" against left-handed and right-handed hitters, a base is set against which to apply needed defensive adjustments. An example would be to shade a hitter a step or two one way or the other, either for an entire at-bat or perhaps based on the count.
This defensive game plan is discussed among the coaches, especially with Pitching Coach Dave Duncan, prior to every series then covered in detail with the players and reinforced as needed each day.
Shortstop David Eckstein explained. "We have meetings where we talk about where we are going to play each guy and in this system, we have the ability to move ourselves in-game. So, it is not like we have to stand in one spot. If we can see a guy who is more pulling, then we can take the extra step to the hole to get ourselves into position. It is definitely key. A lot of our guys throw a lot of ground balls so we'll study hitters, trying to make adjustments. We're constantly looking, trying to get that little bit of an advantage to be in the right spot."
With their first look at the new Busch on Sunday, April 2, Pettini and Oquendo have set out to accomplish some important work. First, Pettini must stake out his regular position in the new Cardinals dugout.
Folks might think the working locations of the coaches during the game are totally random, but that is not the case at all. You see, the Cardinals infield defensive positioning is based on Pettini's set spot in the dugout. In the old Busch, you could always see Pettini in the exact same place, one foot perched on the top step of the dugout, with book in front of him and stopwatch in hand to time the pitcher.
This Sunday, Pettini will be standing ready in his new perch, digital camera in hand, playing the photographer. Oquendo will assume the role of the various Cardinals infielders, moving to the necessary locations on the new Busch diamond as Pettini takes his numerous shots.
That way, when the 2006 Cardinals take the field during the home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday, April 10, the defense will be ready to do the little things that separate a championship ball club from the others.
I spoke with Oquendo and Pettini about this, as well as their expectations of the new turf at Busch Stadium in the attached audio clip (subscribers only).
To learn more about the Cardinals' defensive positioning process, refer to these articles:
"Cardinals Middle Infield Defense Rests its Case – Part Two" (subscribers only).
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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