Pain finally turns into gain

After years of battling injuries and adversity, Ryan Ludwick is finally fulfilling the promise he showcased as a star at Durango High School and UNLV.

Named an All-Star this year for the first time in his major league career, Ludwick has been a key contributor for the St. Louis Cardinals, who trail the division-leading Chicago Cubs by four games in the National League Central.

But not long ago Ludwick, 30, thought his career might be ending.

The outfielder got off to a poor start with Cleveland in 2005, hitting .220 with four home runs and five RBIs in 19 games, and the Indians designated him for assignment to make room for Juan Gonzalez.

After clearing waivers, Ludwick was sent to Triple-A Buffalo, where he hit .191 with four home runs and 16 RBIs in 54 games.

“I really felt no one wanted me anymore because I cleared waivers,” Ludwick said. “I felt my career was possibly coming to an end.

“I didn’t want to be in Triple A, I was having absolutely zero fun, and to top it off, with two months left in the season, I got hit by a 95 mph fastball on my wrist and had wrist surgery. That was the lowest point.”

After undergoing his fifth surgery in five years — he also had fractured his hip, broken bones in his arm and leg and torn up his knee, as well as suffered from ulcers — Ludwick said, “I felt God had something against me.”

“I didn’t get why I was getting hurt so much and why nothing worked out,” he said.

But Ludwick convinced himself that it wasn’t the end.

“I looked at myself in the mirror and told myself ‘I’m not done. I’m going to make another run at this thing,’ ” he said.

Ludwick came back strong in 2006, earning International League All-Star honors and compiling 28 homers and 80 RBIs for Toledo, the Detroit Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate, but for first time in five years, he didn’t see any action in the majors.

“It was frustrating,” he said. “At that point, I was thinking about going to Japan to make some money.”

Fortunately for Ludwick, he instead signed with St. Louis last year.

After getting off to a sizzling start with Triple-A Memphis — batting .340 with eight homers and 36 RBIs in 29 games — Ludwick was called up to the Cardinals and has been with them since.

“I knew it was my last opportunity possibly, and I was ready for it,” said Ludwick, a second-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics in 1999. “I wasn’t going to let this one go by.”

The 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound Ludwick hit .267 last season with 14 homers and 52 RBIs in 120 games, and his strong play gave him newfound confidence heading into this season.

“I came in this year knowing I could play at this level,” said Ludwick, who is hitting .294 and ranks in the top 10 in the NL in homers (23), RBIs (73), runs scored (69) and slugging percentage (.576). “I don’t know if there’s any better feeling (than) battling through adversity and getting where I felt I belonged five years ago.”

Ludwick’s timing couldn’t have been better, either. With St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols out with an injury early in the season, Ludwick helped keep the Cardinals in contention.

“I don’t know where we would’ve been without him,” St. Louis hitting coach Hal McRae said after a June win over Boston at Fenway Park.

In his 10th pro season and seventh in the majors, Ludwick got off to a hot start — batting .309 in April and .333 in May — but turned cold in June, hitting .228 and enduring a 2-for-26 stretch at one point.

“I really felt (pitchers) made some adjustments,” he said. “But my wife (Joanie) thought I was stressing about the All-Star Game.”

It turned out his wife was right. On the day Ludwick learned his peers had voted him onto the NL All-Star team, he hit his first home run in 21 games and went on to homer in six of his next eight games, including in four straight.

“I had a rough stretch where I lost my rhythm, timing and approach, then all of a sudden — bam! — it came back,” said Ludwick, who went 0-for-2 with a walk and made a diving catch in the final All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” Ludwick said. “My whole family was there, and to have my name introduced with all the other great players who voted me in was an incredible feeling.

“It was a historic night. I’ll always be able to tell my kids growing up that their dad played in that game, and I’m hopeful I can get in a couple more of them.”

Back on track with a .310 batting average, seven homers and 16 RBIs in July, Ludwick is intent on proving this year’s performance hasn’t been a fluke.

“Everywhere I’ve went, I’ve had an extreme amount of doubters … and it really makes my motor go,” he said. “I love proving people wrong. There’s nothing better, in my mind, than proving people wrong.”

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