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10/13/05 9:15 PM ET

Nunez proving he belongs

Journeyman infielder has been valuable player for Cards

ST. LOUIS -- The double takes should have stopped by now. No longer should anyone look at the St. Louis Cardinals' Abraham Nunez and wonder, "What is he doing here?"

Spending the last seven years bouncing between the Majors and the Minors with Pittsburgh qualified him for a non-roster invitation to Spring Training and not much more, but Nunez found himself on the Opening Day roster. Nunez had played mostly second base and shortstop and had appeared just eight times at third base before arriving, so what was he doing playing third when Scott Rolen suffered a left shoulder injury on May 10 that eventually would end his season?

Saving the Cardinals, it turned out. He batted .285 during the regular season, 22 points higher than any previous season. Nunez also has sizzled in the playoffs, batting .429 (6-for-14) with a .500 on-base percentage and four runs scored. In Wednesday night's opener of the National League Championship Series against Houston, his deft throw to home plate to retire Morgan Ensberg prevented a key run in a 5-3 Cardinals victory.

Even Nunez, 29, had a giddy smile before Thursday's second game. On a team full of stars and vets, Nunez was at a podium answering questions during a pregame press conference. That had happened, well, never.

"I've never been in a position like this before, and I thank God for this opportunity, because it's been a blessing and I hope to continue for it to be like that," Nunez said.

Of course, going from unwanted by an also-ran team to key cog in a World Series contender doesn't happen suddenly.

The Cardinals signed shortstop David Eckstein during the winter to a three-year, $10.25 million contract. But fearing the oppressive St. Louis humidity would reduce the 5-foot-7, 165-pound Eckstein to an even smaller puddle, the Cards needed low-priced insurance. Jim Leyland, who worked as a pro scout for the Cardinals from 2000 until taking the Detroit Tigers' managing job a few days ago, pushed for Nunez.

No one, though, had any way of knowing that Nunez could perform at a championship level while playing an unfamiliar position. But that's what the Cards needed. The original thought was John Mabry would be the backup at third, but outfield injuries would require the versatile Mabry to play there.

Turns out Nunez had done at least a little preparation for the possibility in winter ball in the Dominican Republic.

"Being able to play in the middle infield, you play there, you pretty much can play anywhere else," Nunez said. "The angles are different and it's something that I have to work at every day."

Nunez made 77 starts at third, and the play on Tuesday -- when he fielded a slow chopper, shuffled to his left for a better angle and made an accurate throw to the plate -- served as an example of the defense he provided. But he also became valuable offensively from the No. 7 spot, reaching base 75 times in the final 54 regular-season games.

Overlooked by baseball at large as he toiled in relative obscurity and with little success -- he was more likely to be confused with Kansas City outfielder Abraham Nunez than anything else -- he was foremost on the Cards' minds as they raced through the season with the NL's best record.

"We have kind of a tradition," manager Tony La Russa said. "The first bottle of champagne, you look around, who is the most appropriate, and I think there were only two or three guys that had not popped champagne. By consensus of the players, [they felt] Abe should pop it. That's about as good of recognition from the team as you can get."

Then there's this winter, Nunez's first of free agent eligibility. It isn't clear if his best chance for money and playing time is with St. Louis, with Rolen back, or elsewhere. Nunez said there had been no talks -- Dave Stewart, La Russa's pitching ace in Oakland a few years back, represents Nunez. For now, Nunez's energy is on where he is rather than where he's going.

"I've never been here before," Nunez said. "I played in Pittsburgh and we never made it close to the postseason. This is a big stage for me and this is something I really enjoy and make the most of every day, because it might be a once-in-a-lifetime [chance]."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.