If the St. Louis Cardinals are driving you batty with their one-step-forward, one-step-back start to the season, imagine where they’d be without a handful of players who weren’t even wearing a Redbirds uniform at this juncture a year ago.
You could almost fill a lineup card with the fresh faces who have contributed beyond expectations in the early going, while veterans on the club have yet to find their third and fourth gear.
“It’s really the kind of team we have right now,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said this week. “We have so many good options. We’ve seen something positive from every single guy on our roster right now. We have to try to keep them sharp … It also keeps guys engaged.”
A collection of seven newcomers – some of them startling new, some of them sort-of new – had accounted by the weekend for 56 percent of the team’s runs, 45 percent of the team’s hits, 46 percent of the team’s doubles, 60 percent of the team’s triples, 64 percent of the team’s home runs, 49 percent of the team’s RBIs and 41 percent of the team’s walks.
That lineup of neophytes: Jeremy Hazelbaker, Aledmys Diaz, Eric Fryer, Greg Garcia, Jedd Gyorko, Brandon Moss and Stephen Piscotty. (Programming note: We include Garcia here even though he was dispatched to Memphis earlier this week after hitting only .600 – only .600! six hits in 10 at-bats! – the first two weeks. That wasn’t enough to keep him in the big leagues when Ruben Tejada could come off the DL earlier this week.)
But I digress: Better to focus on the newbies who have kept the Cards afloat even as the Chicago Cubs are taking a very early lead in the National League Central race.
“It’s awesome just to see the guys you haven’t really heard of come up playing the way they are playing,” Gyorko said this week. “Hopefully they can keep it up.”
Moss, Garcia and especially Piscotty are familiar faces for Cardinal fans who watched them play the second half of last season in St. Louis. Meanwhile, other even more familiar faces have struggled at this juncture, among them Randal Grichuk (.192), Kolten Wong (.208), Matt Holliday (.214), Matt Adams (.219) and Matt Carpenter (.226).
Only lineup mainstay Yadier Molina (.344) is hitting better than he did a year ago, leaving us with this nagging notion:
Where would these Cardinals be without the newest Birds on the Bat?
Diaz, the baby of the group at 25, has made the most of his opportuny at shortstop with Jhonny Peralta (hand injury) and Tejada (strained quad) on the disabled list. Peralta is out for the forseeable future, while Tejada came off the DL Monday and played Tuesday.
Even so, the rookie Diaz was back in the starting lineup Wednesday, his ninth start of the season.
“We always encourage our guys not to overthink any potential roster moves,” Matheny said. “With Diaz, the same thing, just keep playing the game. Don’t start playing junior GM and try to figure out what the next move is going to be. Just continue to play a good shortstop, take your good at-bats, and trust the fact we’re going to do the right thing our club needs us to do when that time comes.”
Diaz is hitting .467 with two homers, 10 RBIs and 12 runs scored, second only to Grichuk, though his five errors lead the club after 17 games.
“I just go out and do my best for the team. I’m not concerned about nothing. I just play 100 percent and help my team to win,” he said. “I’m very happy with the results, but you have to keep working.
“The tough thing here is (to) keep hitting and keep playing well. I don’t focus too much on the result. I just keep working on the process and trust in the process.”
If no one expected much from Diaz – before Peralta and Tejada were hurt, Diaz had been expected to play most of the season at Memphis – the advent of Fryer has been even more surprising.
The backup catcher, 30, has six hits in seven at-bats for the Cardinals this year. Three of those came Sunday, when he singled and doubled twice, drove in two runs and had a walk in the Cards’ 4-3 win over Cincinnati.
“It was special, especially how tight the game was,” Fryer said. “To clinch the series against the Reds, it was big, it was a nice atmosphere. “I’ve had some pretty big games before in the big leagues, but not in such a tight game.
Alas, Fryer didn’t think to keep a memento of the game.
“Maybe someone has a ball or something laying around somewhere that I don’t know about about. There are pictures online somewhere; maybe at some point you go back and print some out that are special.”
If Hazelbaker did that, he’d have an album full. The rookie outfielder started the year with 13 hits in 26 at-bats, three doubles, a triple, three home runs and seven RBIs.
“Jeremy’s a confident kid. That’s partly why we were excited about having him on our club,” Matheny said. “Just the way he handled some of the at-bats –he’d jump back in there and take another good one. I think that’s the kind of player he’s going to be.”
Hazelbaker, 28, took 2,734 at-bats in 751 minor-league games in the Boston and Los Angeles Dodger organizations before he was signed by the Cardinals this winter. He hit .304 with three homers and 10 RBIs in 22 games this spring, earning one of the last roster spots before the team headed north.
“This is stuff you think about, even dream about – but at the same time, it’s not something you can prepare for,’’ said Hazelbaker, who is batting .351 with three homers and seven RBIs despite an 0-for-16 skid dating back to April 14.
“I can’t thank them enough for giving me this opportunity. I knew I could do it; it was just about getting a chance.”
Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written abou the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at 618-239-2512 or @JoeOstermeier