How good was Kolten Wong on Tuesday night vs. the Yankees? So good that I didn’t even realize he was 0-for-4 at the plate.
Wong has played with more confidence, focus and aggressiveness over the last two weeks. He flashed great speed on a ground ball by beating Jacoby Ellsbury (who has great speed himself) to first base in the top of the fourth inning on Tuesday. Later in the inning, he made a great play on a groundball by pivoting his feet and putting himself in good position to start a 4-6-3 double play. He made a similar play in the eighth (although not a double play) and came up with a diving catch in foul territory to end the fifth.
He’s only hitting .252 on the year, but the box score doesn’t tell the full story. Tuesday night was the first time since he’s been recalled from Memphis that he didn’t reach base safely in a game. While watching film in the minors, he realized that he needed to reduce his leg kick in order to fix his mechanics at the plate. Now that his base is wider and his kick is shorter, he admits to seeing the ball easier, and his swing is more compact.
Wong’s reemergence couldn’t have come at a better time. Nobody expected the Cardinals to hit .330 again with runners in scoring position like they did a year ago, but it’s clear that this offense isn’t firing on all cylinders, either. Part of the reason is because they lost a significant piece in Carlos Beltran, who did most of his damage from the two-hole.
As a team, the No. 2 spot in the order produced a .304/.350/.472 slash line in 2013, with 24 home runs (tied for most on the team), 95 RBIs and an OPS of .822. Through 52 games this year, the two-hole is hitting .259/.338/.401 with just four home runs, 25 RBIs and an OPS of .738.
Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos don’t get on base enough to hold down the No. 2 spot in the order, and Yadi Molina clogs the bases due to his lack of speed. Wong’s OBP in the minors was nearly .370 and, if he can keep the strikeouts down, he might be an ideal fit for the two-hole. The emphasis offensively should be on guys like Peralta, Molina, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter. But if Wong can provide steady production from the two-hole, then this lineup has a chance to be as unrelenting to opposing pitchers as it was a year ago.
Of course, Mike Matheny needs to keep Wong in the lineup. The youngster didn’t help himself by hitting .225/.276/.268 before his demotion last month, but Matheny also didn’t do him any favors when Mark Ellis was activated from the DL on April 15. Wong went from regular contributor to being in and out of the lineup, and/or bounced up and down the order. Ellis was a nice veteran addition in the offseason, but Wong is regarded as the long-term answer at second base. Thus, Matheny needs to leave him in the lineup (with rest, of course) and suffer through the inevitable ups and downs of a young player.
Since his return, Wong’s swing has improved, he’s played with more confidence defensively, and he’s flashed his speed both in the field and on the base paths. As with any athlete, the only question is whether or not he can produce on a consistent basis.
But for right now, it looks like Wong has zero intention of heading back to Memphis.