ST. LOUIS -- All week, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa defended Chris Duncan from critics harping on his uncertain fielding and sporadic hitting. Then, a day after Duncan got the go-ahead hit and made a couple of nice defensive plays in left field, he was sent to the minors.
Duncan was optioned to Triple-A Memphis on Friday to iron out his difficulties. The Cardinals recalled power-hitting outfielder Joe Mather from Memphis and had him in the lineup Friday night.
La Russa said the criticism made it more difficult to make the move "because you don't want to appear to be giving in." After sleeping on it last night, La Russa made the move knowing the Cardinals would be facing five left-handed starters in seven days. Duncan, who bats left-handed, will get regular at-bats in the minors.
La Russa said he made the decision after consulting coaches and the front office.
"It was a very tough call because even though he's not quite himself, he's still surviving here," La Russa said. "He's not hitting under .200, he's hitting .260.
"But in the end just because of this rash of left-handers we're going to face the next two series, I just don't think ... not getting him a bunch of at-bats is the right thing to do."
The 25-year-old Mather, a third-round pick in 2001 who bats right-handed, was batting second against Pittsburgh Pirates left-hander Zach Duke. He's the sixth player to make his debut with the Cardinals this season, getting the callup after hitting 10 homers this month.
"The first thing that comes to mind is, obviously, I've been in the minor leagues a while," Mather said. "It's been a long road but I'm here and it feels great."
La Russa said Mather would play "enough" while getting his first taste of the major leagues. He also made it clear that he expects Duncan to be back as soon as he's right and rated Duncan's potential ahead of Mather and Colby Rasmus, a first-round pick in 2005 who has been considered the organization's brightest prospect. Duncan hit 21 homers last year and 22 in about half-season in 2006, his rookie year.
"There isn't any outfielder in our system that has more potential to be an impact, productive player than Chris Duncan," La Russa said. "This is all about getting him some at-bats, and there aren't consistent at-bats here in this short period of time."
Duncan had a two-run single in the first inning off Roy Oswalt on Thursday in a 3-2 victory over the Astros, but is batting .213 in May and .252 overall with four homers and 16 RBIs. He has struggled to regain his stroke since sustaining a sports hernia last season.
La Russa went out of his way to compliment Duncan's play after Thursday's game.
"This guy plays defense, on his worst day, average," La Russa said. "If everybody on our roster was as talented, as tough a competitor and as great a teammate as that young man, we may never lose."
La Russa said Duncan, the son of pitching coach and longtime La Russa aide Dave Duncan, did not take the demotion well. But Duncan was expected to be in the Memphis lineup as early as Saturday.
"He probably doesn't have any confidence now because he's getting sent out, but I think he believes in himself," La Russa said. "He's worked his butt off to get right."
But Duncan lost playing time in a competitive outfield situation behind Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel and Skip Schumaker -- all in their first year of pretty much regular duty. Ludwick had a .327 average, 13 homers and 39 RBIs, Ankiel had eight homers, 25 RBIs and seven go-ahead hits, and Schumaker is the primary leadoff man, and had a .285 average with two homers and 15 RBIs.
Mather is batting .315 with 12 homers and 24 RBIs in 38 games for Memphis, and has a six-game-hitting streak. Of his 32 hits this month, 20 went for extra bases.
Mather combined to hit 31 homers last season between Double-A Springfield and Memphis, and nearly was called up when Ankiel missed a handful of games with a strained right shoulder earlier this month. Before last season, he hadn't played above the Class A level.
"I know last year was kind of a breakout year for me," Mather said. "I put up solid years before, but nothing like last year."