Rafael Furcal knows himself better than you do.

And if pressed, he'll tell you he knows himself better than the organization that acquired him last July or the manager who took over the Cardinals last November.

He knows well the kind of player he was when earning recognition as National League rookie of the year 12 years ago. He remembers scoring 100 runs for four consecutive seasons as the Atlanta Braves' and Los Angeles Dodgers' shortstop and leadoff hitter. It's a mere two seasons since he stole 22 of 26 attempts in only 97 games.

Furcal, his gravelly voice sounding like property of someone who has seen and endured much in 34 years, can quickly recite the back, hamstring and hand injuries that have conspired against him the last two years.

"I know what I can do,'' Furcal says. "I know how to play this game. The only thing I ask God for is to let me be healthy. Right now I'm healthy. So we see.''

What the Cardinals have so far witnessed this season is a transformation of a player and of the role he fills.

Long a power-based club that saw little need to put the game in motion in front of three-time MVP Albert Pujols, this year Furcal's constant presence on base has created an upbeat tempo often from the team's first plate appearance. Hitting coach Mark McGwire has taken notice.