ST. LOUIS -- 12 days after being sent to Triple-A Memphis, Kolten Wong was back in St. Louis. His promotion (which coincided with his promotional jersey giveaway at Busch) followed an emphatic campaign for reinstatement in which he hit four home runs, drove in 11 and scored 10 times, all in seven games.
“I knew before I went down to Memphis my swing was where it needed to be. I just needed consistent playing time,” the 25-year-old said. “When I went down to Memphis and I knew I’d be playing every day, not being taken out or double-switched, it kind of gave me that boost I needed. I just wanted to play every day.”
Wong has spoken before about the relationship between his performance and consistent deployment. He functions best when there’s trust, and freedom to fail.
“Coming up through the minor leagues, I succeeded because I had that security knowing I was the guy. I knew they were going to give me a chance. When you have that security and that piece of mind, it allows you to just play free,” he said this spring, following the announcement of his five-year contract extension.
That extension was supposed to give him that freedom; a sign of commitment that meant today’s performance doesn’t determine tomorrow’s playing time.
But that’s not the case in 2016 for the Cardinals. In a bizarre turnabout, St. Louis relies far more heavily on their offense this season. The pitching and defense stumbled early, forcing Mike Matheny to construct his lineup by picking hitters with the highest potential threats. Sometimes that meant relying on lefty/righty splits, other times it meant pulling a player who went 0-for-4 the night before and injecting new blood.
That was frustrating for a player like Wong, who had just 144 plate appearances in the first two months, because it lent a sense of heightened consequences to every bad at bat. Each trip to the plate, a journey that often ends in failure anyhow, felt like an audition.
When Jhonny Peralta returned from his thumb injury and bumped Matt Carpenter out of his spot at third base, Wong seemed to be the odd man out. Carpenter would move to second, and playing time would become even harder to find.
The Cardinals responded by sending the Hawaiian down to Memphis, and Wong viewed it as a chance to find regular work and prove his theory.
“He went down with the right perspective, the right attitude. To go get better. He’s working hard on whatever he needs to do to be the best player he can be,” Matheny said.
Wong responded by going Barry Bonds on the PCL, using the scenery change to recenter himself mentally.
“Just a different mindset this time. I went down there and told myself regardless of what I do, I’m going to have fun. I’m not going to let at bats affect me. I’m just going to play the game and enjoy playing it regardless whether I’m doing good or bad,” he said. “I don’t play this game for the money, man. Not for the fame or anything like that. It’s because I grew up loving this game, enjoying playing this game. Sometimes that gets taken away from you and you have to find a way to find it again.”
While he was working to return to his mental roots, he also revisited an old position. The Redbirds deployed the 25-year-old in center field, where he played early in his career at the University of Hawaii.
“It’s like riding a bike, honestly,” he said about his return to the outfield. “I always mess around anyway in center during batting practice. But it really is like riding a bike. Just getting back to it and reading the balls.”
He also had to stretch out his arm. Though he has a strong throw in the infield, the mechanics and demands of long throws from the outfield are completely different. He began throwing long toss to re-acclimate himself, and got a true test on June 15. With the potential game-tying run streaking home, he fielded a ball in center and fired to the plate, cutting down the runner to preserve the lead.
Friday a few players gathered around him in the locker room to relive the play on his phone, each breaking into a wide grin when they watched him unleash the throw on video.
“I was long-tossing the three days before that. So I had my arm working the right way and I had my feet in a good position,” he explained, his voice tinged with pride.
Given Carpenter’s move back to second base and the struggles of Randal Grichuk at the plate, Wong’s best shot at playing time is in the outfield this season. Matheny and the Cardinal brass have expressed no hesitation about deploying him there, and the continued offensive priority means he’ll soon get an opportunity.
But Wong is a second baseman at heart. He has tremendous talent in the infield, boasting the range and hand speed of a Gold Glove winner. At this point, playing time is the priority, but he’s still more comfortable with dirt under his cleats.
“I think I’m one of the best second basemen in the league. To me, anyway,” he said. “But this is definitely something good because it’s going to open up different options for them to get me in the lineup. If that’s the case, if I have to move positions to be in that lineup, I’ll do it. I just want to be playing.”
Run creation is the name of the game for this year’s Cardinals, and Wong’s 1.458 OPS in Memphis seems to indicate he's committed to serving that demand.
But translating Triple-A success to the majors is a hurdle that has proved too challenging for tens of thousands of players. It’s the hardest jump to make in sports, and whether or not Wong can convert minor league momentum into major league prowess is something the Cardinals need answered.
“That’s always a question,” Matheny said. “There’s been a lot of kids throughout the history of the game that have killed it in the lower levels and had trouble translating it. There’s not a magic touch. It’s just guys figuring it out. Sometimes it takes time.”
Sometimes it takes a change of perspective. Wong’s frustration was born of inconsistent playing time. He expected a recurring role and ended up being cast in a bit part. But his trip south allowed him to clear his head, and threw some things into sharper relief.
“Looking back at the season so far, I’ve had games where I’ve done really well and the next day I didn’t play. That was something I didn’t see before,” he said. “Now I see that this is the way this organization is going. We’re trying to use the matchups to our advantage and put guys in good situations. Now that I see that, I can really take it a lot better. Really understand how we’re doing this. Before I didn’t and it was something that ate at me because I wanted to be in there every day.”
Ironically, his acceptance of part-time responsibilities may be the key to earning a full-time role.