When Kolten Wong was optioned to Class AAA Memphis on June 5, he was a second baseman. Wong returned Friday as a second baseman and an outfielder.
“I’m definitely taking this as a fresh start. I’m not going to take it any other way,” Wong said before the interleague contest against the Texas Rangers. “I did what I needed to do in Triple-A. Everyone saw it. Everyone knows exactly what I went down there and did. I’m justified to be back up here.”
Wong, 25, hit safely in all seven of his games with the Redbirds and batted .429 (12-for-28) with four home runs and 11 RBIs.
“I got to play baseball and play every day,” Wong said of his abbreviated stint in the minor leagues. “I knew I was going to be in the lineup every day and I got to just go out there and have fun and enjoy the game.”
What was the confident Wong’s biggest takeaway?
“It’s just a new menality of going out there and playing the game, regardless of what the situation is,” Wong said. “How I’m playing or when I’m playing, I’m just going to go out there and have fun. Those guys helped me with that down there and it was a really good time.”
Outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker was optioned to Memphis to clear space on the roster for Wong. Hazelbaker, a rookie, was batting .250 (31-for-124) with seven home runs and 19 RBIs in 61 games. He hit three pinch-hit home runs and led the team with four steals.
“He was one of our better baserunners and was a big-impact bat for us early on, so there wasn’t a whole lot not to like about how Jeremy went about his business,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “Part of the conversation with him was, ‘We need to get you some pretty consistent work because it hasn’t been coming here.’”
Wong started in center field for the Redbirds in three games, and that’s likely where he will see some time with the Cardinals since Matt Carpenter is entrenched at second base. Carpenter’s move came after Jhonny Peralta returned from the disabled list and took over at third base, Carpenter’s former position.
Peralta, formerly the No. 1 shortstop, no longer is needed full-time at that position with the emergence of hard-hitting rookie Aledmys Diaz.
Wong is ready for anything, and rather enjoyed getting reacquainted with center field. He played center as a freshman at the University of Hawaii.
“I’m athletic enough where I know I can play out there,” Wong said. “It was funny playing out there. It brought back memories of being in college again my freshman year. I didn’t feel like I really lost that much. It was kind of like riding a bike again.”
Center field and second base, of course, are radically different positions.
“Fly balls are a lot different than a ground ball,” Wong said. “That’s the toughest thing for me – realizing how to read the ball off the bat and make sure I’m not taking the wrong jump. That’s the biggest thing. Down there, I had some balls where I was tested. Luckily, I made the right call and went the right way. I’m definitely excited about trying to play center field again. If they want me to play there, I’ll be ready.
“I want to be in there every day. I love this game. At this level, it’s all about the business and making sure we get wins.”
Matheny said Friday he will not hesitate to start Wong in center field and than Wong also can play left field or right field. Matheny was noncommital about how often Wong will find himself in the action.
“It’s just kind of looking at where our club is right and trying to figure out where there’s potential to put a good player into the mix,” Matheny said. “We moved Carp over to second base and we feel good about where Jhonny is. Obviously, we like where Diaz is as well. It provides an opportunity to see whether Kolten can be flexible for us and provide something in the outfield.”
Wong hit the ground running at Memphis. He socked a pair of homers in his first game June 9 against visiting Colorado Springs, including a game-winning grand slam. He also had two homers and four RBIs on Tuesday at Nashville.
Wong’s productive offensive extravaganza at Memphis was a far cry from what he was doing in St. Louis before being optioned. He was batting .222 (28-for-126) with one home run and five RBIs in 49 games.
“Going up to being demoted, I was feeling like things were starting to click,” Wong said. “It was bad timing to where I wasn’t doing anything up here. Going down there, everything kind of fell into place exactly like I knew it was going to.”
Center fielder Randal Grichuk batted eighth Friday. He began the game in a 4-for-32 slump in June that had plummeted his average to .209 with a club-high 53 strikeouts.
“Randal is one of those players that looks a little off for a while, then next thing you know, he could carry us,” Matheny said. “Defensively, we like what he does. He does a nice job in the outfield. We’ll just see if we can get him in a nice, positive spot.”
One of Matheny’s least-favorite topics these days regards closer Trevor Rosenthal.
Rosenthal has a 10.13 ERA in non-save situations and a 0.64 ERA in save opportunities.
“I see it as a distraction to hear all the noise about how he performs outside of save situations,” Matheny said. “He’s got to be able to get past that. He just needs to not get caught up in what the situation is, but (make) one pitch at a time and compete. It means something all the time, regardless of what the score says.”
Overall, Rosenthal is 2-1 with a 4.09 ERA and 12 saves in 25 games. He has 19 walks in 22 innings.
“Get outs,” Matheny said. “Get outs whatever the situation is. All our guys are that way. They need to be able to do whatever is asked of them each individual night regardless of what the situation is.
“We’re going to continue to get (Rosenthal) work and it’s not always going to be in save situations.”