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03/27/08 6:04 PM ET

Schumaker making name for himself

Center fielder a favorite of La Russa, Cardinals teammates

JUPITER, Fla. -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa acknowledged Thursday that he considers center fielder Skip Schumaker as one of the team's regulars. For Schumaker, the announcement culminated four years of particularly intensive training.

The Californian found a personal trainer, a Los Angeles SWAT team member, and began trying to separate himself from his competition. He said he's now stronger, faster and quicker than he's ever been.

"I don't think you can work out harder than I have," he said after the Cardinals had defeated the Marlins, 2-0, at Roger Dean Stadium on Thursday. "I never get tired in games now. The games are the easy part."

Schumaker, who hit .333 for the Cardinals last season in 177 at-bats, endeared himself to La Russa, particularly as a quality leadoff man.

"I haven't had to mess around a lot with different combinations because he's really come in and taken charge of that position," La Russa said. "He gives us some consistency there."

Batting .394 after two hits in three at-bats Thursday, Schumaker finished the Grapefruit League portion of Spring Training with the Cardinals' second best batting average next to Albert Pujols. He said he is more comfortable now in a Major League uniform.

"The main thing is, I've gotten more confidence as I've played more," Schumaker said.

Nearby, a reporter was talking to center fielder Rick Ankiel about his spring when he blurted, "You know who the best player on our team is, don't you?" Without waiting for a response, Ankiel said, "Skip Schumaker. He's the best player on this team, by far."

What about Pujols, the perennial All-Star?

"Albert doesn't count," Ankiel said. "Albert's Albert."

Soon, catcher Jason LaRue chimed in, "Skip is the best player in baseball."

Told later of their comments, the muscular Schumaker didn't get too excited.

"They're just playing around with me," he said, smiling.

Yet, if La Russa is right, this will be the season where Schumaker's reputation rises markedly.

Charlie Nobles is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.