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03/30/10 6:15 PM ET

Freese claims Cards' third-base job

Lopez to be utility man, may play hot corner vs. tough righties

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- When Spring Training started, the questions for the Cardinals included who would be the fifth starter, how the bench and bullpen would be composed and who would be the starting third baseman. Some of those races lingered well into camp, with the fifth starter only being officially named on Tuesday and the bench still not entirely settled.

One quickly developed a clear answer. What has been obvious since early in Grapefruit League play became official on Tuesday. Manager Tony La Russa notified David Freese prior to the Cardinals' game against the Mets that Freese will be the club's primary and Opening Day third baseman.

Freese didn't get off to the fastest start, but as camp went on, his play improved at the plate and in the field. And it was clear even before he really got going that he was the man to beat. Now he's won the job.

"I've progressed," Freese said. "I think I turned it around a little bit. I've always been a slow starter in spring, so I wasn't panicking too much. But I think when it came down to the last couple weeks, I've shown what I can do. I've just got to consistently go out there and do it."

Freese appeared to have won the job last spring and entered the 2009 season as the apparent leader for the job, but he didn't start on Opening Day and was compromised early in the season because of a heel injury. This time around, it's much clearer. He won't play every day, but he's the third baseman, cementing the club's everyday starting eight.

"He is our third baseman," La Russa said on Tuesday morning.

La Russa was never that unequivocal last year.

"It's different," Freese said. "Coming into camp, I said I wanted to earn it, and talking to Tony this morning, I truly feel that I have. So it's a great feeling. But it's just the beginning. I'm done with the first step and now we've got to get ready for the season."

Freese's journey to this point was circuitous. He was never physically right during his first stint with the Major League club, dealing with an injury he first suffered in a car crash over the previous winter. He made his way back to the Majors late in 2009 and hit much better than his first time around, strengthening his case to be the '10 starter.

A drunk driving arrest over the winter clouded his outlook somewhat, but Freese has drawn plaudits for how he has kept his affairs in order since then.

"It hasn't been the easiest road," he said. "I think mentally it's made me tougher, from everything that's happened. I just came in here focused. I had a lot of baggage walking in this year, but I'm real happy with the support I've had from everybody from top to bottom. I grinded it out and earned the job."

With Freese being named the main man at third, Felipe Lopez will serve as a utility player. Lopez may spell Freese against some tough right-handed starters and will likely play second against many lefties. But he doesn't figure to be part of a platoon at any position.

"Felipe is real good at a whole lot of places," La Russa said. "He needs to get some more hits, not many hits this spring. But the ability is there."

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