Mather 85% Down Road to Recovery

Recovering from back and hand problems, St Louis Cardinals slugger Joe Mather has the bat back in his hands and is slamming home runs again. The outfielder discusses his progress and his chances in 2009.

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Joe Mather returned to his high school alma mater, Mountain Pointe High School (AZ), on Saturday for their annual alumni home run derby.

Drafted by the Cardinals right out of high school in the third round in 2001, it is easy to see why when looking at his prep results. Mather holds Pointe career records for home runs (23) and RBIs (92), and home runs in a season, with 17.

Mather is the first Mountain Pointe alum to reach the major leagues and as such was honored by the school when they named the walkway between their junior varsity and varsity fields "Joe Mather Way".

Even better was the fact that Mather wasn't just there to watch.

While still ehabbing from both back problems and hamate bone surgery on his left hand that prematurely ended his rookie campaign with the Cardinals, Mather felt good enough to compete in, and naturally win the derby.

This is encouraging since recovery times from hamate injuries can vary, and it seems power hitters are especially prone to longer rehab periods before returning to 100% efficiency.

Mather told his home paper, the Ahwatukee Foothills News, "I feel alright, about 85 percent on both ends, my back and my hand. Hopefully it's coming along. It's come along a lot farther since it was hurt and I had the surgery. I think it'll be good."

The 26-year-old had been added to the Cardinals' 40-man roster last November to be protected from the 2007 Rule 5 Draft. After a hot start with Memphis last spring, Mather made his big league debut on May 31st, replacing struggling Chris Duncan on the active roster. In that game, Mather not only drove in his first run, but also made a spectacular defensive play in right field in a one-run win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Though he was slowed for a time with back pain, Mather remained with the Cardinals until June 14, when he was sent back down to Memphis. He returned on July 6 when fellow rookie Brian Barton hit the DL. Despite his time in the majors, at that point "Joey Bombs" was still leading the strong-hitting Redbirds in home runs and RBI, ahead of the likes of Josh Phelps, Nick Stavinoha and David Freese.

After going deep in the Cardinals' first post-All Star break contest, Mather was shipped out to Memphis again on July 18 as St. Louis added an extra bullpen arm. He had just 45 major league at-bats to that point. Yet Mather was back in just four days, once again replacing Duncan, who finally succumbed to his neck injury and went onto the DL to officially end his season.

Through August, Mather began to see more and more playing time before injuring his hand during a series at Arizona, ironically in front of friends and family. He apparently injured his hand during a September 1st at-bat on a check swing and aggravated it on a diving play in the outfield. It would end his first MLB season.

The timing of Mather's injury was especially bad, as the Cardinals were short of flychasers with Duncan and Rick Ankiel also hobbled. Mather likely could have been a semi-regular in September, when infielders Felipe Lopez and Adam Kennedy were pressed into regular play in the outfield.

Overall, Mather posted a line of .241/.306/.474 (BA/OBP/SLG) with eight home runs and 18 RBIs in 54 games. His 133 at-bats signifies that he just crossed over the line of 130 at-bats to lose his rookie qualification.

He continued to travel with the big league club in early September, where I caught up with the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder in St. Louis. With a cast on his left hand, Mather tried to stay involved by shagging flies one-handed. He was optimistic, even holding out hope at that point to play some winter ball late, though that seemed unlikely even then.

Manager Tony La Russa clearly likes what he sees from Mather. At the winter meetings, in extensive remarks, La Russa elevated Mather to starter status along with Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker, Duncan and top prospect, minor leaguer Colby Rasmus. (The latter has yet to make his MLB debut.)

La Russa looks at this group of six as his top outfielders, though there is likely only room for five to make the club out of spring training. (Not mentioned were Barton and Stavinoha.)

"It's a real plus but challenging situation. If you just take the six guys, I think Chris is going to be back in there and he's going to be really good, got Ankiel, got Schumaker, got Ludwick, then you've got Mather and Rasmus. That's deep. I mean, those guys are true extra outfielders that you sit there and pinch-hit them.

"Every one of those guys is a starter. That's a major strength. I mean, it might get a little uncomfortable at times, but it's better to have that kind of depth, see what happens," the manager explained.

Among those six, only Mather and Ludwick are right-handed hitters. If fellow righties Barton and Stavinoha are really considered second-tier candidates, here in December I consider the chances of a 100% healthy Mather to come north with the Cardinals to start the season to be very good.

Mather is taking nothing for granted, recognizing the challenges in the numbers.

"We have so many guys," Mather told the News. "If I would've hit 30 or 40 home runs, I would've been a little more comfortable. We have so many guys, but at the same time, I do. I feel comfortable. I feel confident because I know that I can play there at that level and at least compete for a job."

In the meantime, Mather will continue to rehab in Arizona and get ready for spring. The Saturday celebration, roaming his old Mountain Pointe stomping grounds and slamming home runs, was a positive milestone.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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