“That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1800’s.
Little did the German philosopher know that his words could be applied to the road taken in 2014 by St. Louis Cardinals’ second baseman Kolten Wong.
The end result was positive, in that the then-23-year-old followed up his 2013 Cardinals organization Minor League Player of the Year award with an initial Major League season that culminated with a third-place finish in the 2014 National League Rookie of the Year voting.
Getting there was far from straightforward, however.
He still had to earn the job, however, while living down the embarrassment of being picked off first base to end World Series Game 4 the prior October.
Wong started slowly this spring, but by the end of camp, he was among the Grapefruit League’s offensive leaders in batting average (.375) and on-base percentage (.434). The second spot in the batting order seemed to be his, strengthened by veteran Mark Ellis opening the season on the disabled list.
As it turned out, the club showed very, very little patience with the rookie – only 20 games to be exact.
With the Cardinals treading water in the early going, holding a 14-12 record on April 26th, they made a stunning move, demoting Wong to Triple-A Memphis.
It seemed to many that the rookie was being unfairly singled out. Though he was only hitting .225 at the time, six of Wong’s non-pitcher teammates with at least 20 at-bats were lugging around batting averages of .175 or less.
To his credit, the left-handed hitter kept quiet and took out any frustrations on the baseball. In 15 Triple-A games, Wong batted .344 (22-for-64) with two home runs and 10 RBI. He was 6-for-16 (.375) with runners in scoring position and a perfect 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts.
Recalled to St. Louis on May 14, Wong continued to swing a hot bat. His final two and a half weeks of that month were so strong that he was named the National League Rookie of the Month for the entire month of May.
Trouble soon returned, however.
On June 3, Wong injured his shoulder making a diving play on defense. After trying to gut through it for almost three weeks but clearly struggling, he was placed on the DL, retroactive to June 21.
At that point, his batting average for the season had plunged to .228 with a .556 OPS and the second-guessers were having a field day.
Re-activated on July 6, Wong silenced his critics by hitting safely in nine of his first 10 games off the DL, including three doubles, five home runs and eight RBI.
Those weren’t just any games. In important head-to-head contests against division rivals Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, the Cards won five of seven and took two more over the Dodgers during his hot streak. Wong ended the July 7 contest over the Bucs with a walkoff homer.
Wong added his first career pinch-hit home run in another big spot, as his two-run shot off Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole tied the September 1 contest. The Cards went on to win that game, taking over sole possession of first place for the first time in 2014. It was a lead they would not relinquish.
From his July 6 healthy return through the end of the season, Wong was first on the Cardinals with 11 stolen bases and second only to Matt Holliday in home runs (with 11) and slugging percentage (.443).
All told, Wong played in 113 regular-season games with St. Louis. He finished first among all Cardinals in steals with 20 (no other player reached double digits) and was fourth on the team in home runs with 12, just three less than slugger Matt Adams, who had 130 more plate appearances. With a .341 batting average with runners in scoring position and two outs, he placed in the top 10 of the entire National League.
Still, it was not smooth sailing in October. The Cardinals presented another obstacle as the post-season opened and again, Wong knocked it down.
In the first game of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Wong was benched in favor of Pete Kozma, a good-glove, no-hit infielder who had spent most of the first five months of the season in Triple-A.
It was clear that Wong had not built up the level of veteran equity that led Scott Rolen to go ballistic in a similar situation back in 2007. Still, the move by manager Mike Matheny was very curious. (For the record, the Cardinals came back to win Game 1, 10-9, but Kozma did not contribute, going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.)
When given the chance to return to the lineup, Wong again came through. His post-season highlight had to be the walkoff home run in the Cardinals’ only win against San Francisco in the Championship Series, Game 2.
Overall in the two rounds, Wong went 7-for-29, with each of his hits going for extra bases – three doubles, a triple and three home runs. Only his teammate Carpenter had more long balls, with Wong’s six RBI just behind Adams (seven) and Carpenter (eight) for both the team and NL lead through the CS.
Wong’s post-season slugging mark of .724 topped all Cardinals, while his .991 OPS was second only to Carpenter.
Despite the demotion, injury and post-season benching, Wong showed what he can do when healthy. Given the chance, he should be a mainstay in the Cardinals lineup for at least the next five years.
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