CINCINNATI -- Rafael Furcal ranks fourth among active players with 29 leadoff home runs in his career. But manager Mike Matheny knows Furcal's value for the Cardinals is based more on his ability to keep the ball out of the air.
"He's going to accidentally bump into some, and he's got some power still," Matheny said. "But when he does that, his swing falls apart. He needs to work the count. I knew his approach would become more consistent."
There's nothing at all wrong with Furcal's swing through the first four games. After a rough spring in which he hit .192, Furcal is 10-for-23 (.435) with three doubles, two stolen bases, three runs scored and three RBIs.
Furcal became the first Cardinals player to have back-to-back three-hit games to begin the season since Tony Scott in 1979.
"It's fun to watch the ball go over the fence, but it's a trap that a lot of guys at the top of the order fall into," Matheny said. "You see guys' careers go in a direction they didn't want because they [fell] into that trap."
Freese locked in at plate early on
CINCINNATI -- Spring Training statistics might seem insignificant for most players, but not for a competitor like David Freese. "I'm always trying to play the best I can," Freese said.
But during this past Spring Training, frustration mounted for the 2011 World Series Most Valuable Player, who hit just .188 with 16 strikeouts in 48 at-bats in Grapefruit League play.
"Spring Training is all about preparation for the start of the season," Freese said. "I just wasn't clicking out of the gate. I didn't like my approach. I always want to play well, and I always want to hit well. That's just how I am."
Obviously, Freese was just waiting for the games that count. The Cardinals third baseman is red-hot to begin the regular season. He went 2-for-5 with a two-run home run in Monday's 7-1 win at Cincinnati. Freese is now hitting .417 with two home runs and eight RBIs through five games.
"He was frustrated in the spring trying to figure things out," said manager Mike Matheny. "He's gotten himself into some big situations so far. He thrives on that. He has that knack. He's got some confidence going now."
Freese is the first Cardinals player since Mark McGwire (1998) to have multi-RBI games in the season's first two games, and the first since Edgar Renteria (2003) to have multiple hits in each of the first three games.
"I'm focused, and just trying to do my part," Freese said. "When those lights come on, you have to execute, you have to produce. We compete here to win a championship. It's no different this year."
Berkman plays despite sore hand
CINCINNATI -- A few eyebrows were raised when Lance Berkman, who has 23 career home runs at Great American Ball Park -- most of any active player -- was not listed on the Cardinals' original starting lineup for Monday's series opener against the Reds. Berkman is nursing a sore hand, but it turned out the lineup was posted prematurely.
Matt Carpenter was starting at first base in the initial version posted in the press box at Great American Ball Park. But manager Mike Matheny said he had Carpenter in the lineup only as a precaution, pending his conversation with Berkman, who was in the cleanup spot and started at first base.
"[Berkman's hand is] a little sore," Matheny said. "We've been very clear that we're going to listen to him. Today, we were just taking our time to see how it felt. He came in and gave it a good trial. He said it felt good."
Matheny said the injury occurred on an awkward swing during Saturday's game. Berkman didn't play in Sunday's game, but Matheny said that decision was based mostly on a poor matchup with Brewers left-hander Randy Wolf.
When asked about the condition of his hand prior to Monday's game, Berkman, seated at a table in the clubhouse clutching a newspaper, quipped, "My hand? I have some soreness. But I could use a hand with this crossword puzzle."
Berkman finished Monday's game 1-for-3, with two walks and two runs scored. He is hitting .308 for the season.
Monday night's game is the first of 15 contests this season between the Cardinals and Reds, including six games in St. Louis and nine in Cincinnati. The Cardinals went 6-9 against the Reds last season, including 1-5 at Great American Ball Park. St. Louis, which leads the all-time series 1,104 to 1,026, is 35-37 at Great American Ball Park since the park opened in 2003.
Smoked Quail is a featured menu item at Mr. Red's Smokehouse within Great American Ball Park, although during the St. Louis series it's being referred to as "Smoked Cardinal."
Jeff Wallner is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.