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03/15/11 7:09 PM ET

McClellan the favorite for final rotation spot

JUPITER, Fla. -- Kyle McClellan remains, officially, one contender in a competition for the vacant spot in the Cardinals' starting rotation. For all practical purposes, however, the competition has been won, and only unrelated circumstances could derail McClellan's bid for the job he wants so badly.

McClellan made it three exceptional performances in three tries on Tuesday, when he twirled five scoreless, one-hit innings against the Braves in a 4-0 St. Louis win. He walked two and needed a relatively tidy 66 pitches to get 15 outs, and threw 40 of those pitches (more than 60 percent) for strikes.

He has done everything right. He has received the backing of pitching coach Dave Duncan. If it is simply a matter of who is the best option to take the spot, the answer is unequivocally McClellan. Even the most prominent holdout, manager Tony La Russa, acknowledged just about that much on Tuesday.

"All I'm saying [is] he's really doing a good job of creating a heck of an act to follow," La Russa said.

McClellan knows as much. He knows how good he's been, and how tough it would be for the Cardinals to do anything but name him to their rotation. He's not just getting results, he's making good pitches. He has the repertoire, the command and the poise to do the job. He also knows that strange things sometimes happen in Spring Training, and until he's announced as the man, he's not the man yet.

"Until the last day, something can always happen," said McClellan, who knows that better than most. "There could be an injury somewhere that could affect my situation. It's something you never count on until you go out there and you take the ball on that day of yours to start. But I like my chances."

It likely will take an injury for McClellan not to win the job -- not to him, but to someone else. La Russa's concern has always been that if McClellan, an extremely effective reliever, is removed from the bullpen, he would be difficult to replace. But more viable candidates have stepped forward to fill McClellan's old job than to keep him from winning a new one.

"I still feel the same way," La Russa said after Tuesday's game, "but there's nobody else that's [stepped forward as a starter]. And we've got potentially some people that could pitch in his spot [in the bullpen]. He's in a better position this year to start -- but no decision yet."

La Russa's conversation with reporters on this topic seemed to last almost as long as McClellan's five innings. Questions came at him from one angle and the next, all with essentially the same gist -- what is the delay in announcing what seems to be inevitable? The manager, though, insists that it's not inevitable.

"What we get out of it is just honesty," he said. "What he gets out of it is probably a little irritation, because he's doing everything and he wants to be that. But he knows the consistent rule we have -- it's a team game. It's what's best for the team. He also picked up the endorsement of the pitching coach early on, so it's not like he's in a bad position."

And with every game, he makes his position even better.

Five days earlier, McClellan pitched with confidence in exactly one of his pitches, his sinking fastball. He made the best of it, showing a skill that every starter needs at some point. On Tuesday, he took one more step forward. He lost the feel for some of his offerings in the second inning, but he adjusted. He retired the last 10 batters he faced.

It was another impressive performance from a pitcher who's given nothing but. And even so, nothing is a done deal yet.

"I love the fact that I'm able to go out there and get a chance to show what I can do," he said. "But with that said, I know it's Spring Training and this doesn't mean squat. What I'd really take pride in is going out and showing it during the season, throughout a full season. Not [just] having a good start. It's doing it all the way through.

"This is big for me, though, because I had to come in and do this. I had to come in and have a good spring and show that I can do it, and my teammates, more than anything, can have faith in me that I can go out and get the job done."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.