The home run Kolten Wong hit Sunday was one small step for him, but at 5-feet-9, it could be said he takes many small steps.
In this instance, though, the homer, which started the Cardinals on their way to a 9-2 win over Cincinnati, marked the first extra-base hit of the season for the Cardinals’ second baseman. Coupled with a four-pitch walk he coaxed later, “It was a good day for me,” said Wong, who has had few this season. He ended the day still hitting only .146 with a .208 slugging percentage.
“Everybody goes through peaks and valleys,” he said. “My valley started from the get-go. And now it’s a climb up that hill.”
That was said after the game. Beforehand, the slick-fielding infielder had his hackles up a bit.
“You guys are making it a big deal. I’ve had 40 (actually 48) at-bats. Not a big deal. It’s the start of the season. I’m not worried about it. There’s no panic,” said Wong.
“Last year, I started the same exact way. And, basically, I should have been a .300 hitter. If this had been the middle of the season and I was going through this, people wouldn’t even say a single word. But the fact it started out this way is coming out a bigger thing than it is.”
Wong knew whereof he spoke. He is seven for 48 now as he and the Cardinals prepare to take on National League East-leading New York here Tuesday night. He was nine for his first 46 last year.
But, for the two weeks or so after his slow start last year, Wong went on a 14-for-28 jag that jumped him to .303 on May 4. He would finish with a career-best .285 average and career-high on-base percentage of .376, marred only by left elbow and right triceps strains that helped limit him to 108 games.
He is not hurt this year. He just hasn’t been playing every day.
“Other guys are doing it and I’m not right now. That’s what it comes down to,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of talent on this team. There are guys who deserve to be playing.”
But, he conceded, “You talk to anybody that’s struggling, the only way to fix that is by going out and getting at-bats every single day.”
In the meantime, Wong will endeavor to excel on defense, as he did Saturday when he made a remarkable, lunging catch of a pop fly well into right field turning it into a double play. Or on Sunday, when he ranged to his right twice to make backhanded grabs of grounders and then threw off-balance, but strongly, to first for the out. On one play, he ended up in the outfield on the left side of second base after making the throw.
“Defense has always been my bread and butter. Offensively, no one’s going to have it every day,” said Wong.
“But defensively … that’s a choice. Have the will to go make a play.”
On previous occasions when Wong would struggle at the plate for a time, he would be prone to changing his stance or swing. He has not done that this year. And he hasn’t berated himself as he also had been wont to do.
“He’s in way better shape to handle it,” said hitting coach John Mabry. “That’s part of him growing as a player. Patience comes into play.
“If he keeps working counts like he’s been working them and swinging at strikes, good things are going to happen.”
Wong, who said he “absolutely” would have been looking to change something structurally before, said, “This is my fifth year in the big leagues and every year has got some kind of challenge. My challenge is getting out of this little funk that I’m in and getting out of it right now. Once I get out of this slump, I know it’s going to be smooth sailing.
“Everybody has that kind of year when they go through crap and they wonder, ‘When is it going to end?’ Mine is right now.”
Wong said he thought he established himself as an everyday player last year. “I thought I did everything I needed to do to prove I could face lefties and face righties,” he said.
In 2017, the lefthanded swinger averaged .288 against righthanders and .274 against lefties. “It’s not that I can’t hit lefties. I know I can,” he said.
This year, he has been only one for seven against lefthanders and he said, “I know there’s guys in this lineup who can hit lefties really well and they belong out there. It’s not that I can complain about not playing. I’m getting my chances. I’m just not doing anything with them right now.”
Jose Martinez seizing control of an everyday job at first base has induced manager Mike Matheny to play Matt Carpenter at second base sometimes. There are days that Jedd Gyorko, who had 50 home runs with the Cardinals the previous two seasons, is at third and Carpenter at second and Greg Garcia, who homered twice in one game, also has seen time at second.
On the other hand, there is little disputing that the Cardinals are better defensively at second with Wong playing there. Wong doesn’t dispute it at all.
“Them seeing me defensively at second opens up their eyes to know that even though I’m not hitting, my defense is hard to replace,” he said. “It’s hard to beat having me out there.”
Of his seven hits, two have been bunt singles, which has tied him for the league lead in one category, at least.
Wong said he “absolutely” would continue to mine that kind of hit. “Until things start clicking,” he said, “I’m going to look for ways to get on, regardless of what it is. Walk … bunt … I’m taking everything as a hit nowadays.
“When you’re in this situation, you’ve got to take the positive out of everything because everything is looking so bad.”
Wong prefers to give credit to the opposing pitchers, rather than castigating himself.
“These guys are making good pitches on me,” he said. “I haven’t been getting many mistakes to drive. They’ll paint on the corner or throw me a good offspeed pitch. They’re taking advantage of me when I’m down. As long as they execute pitches and I’m not doing things right, they’re going to get me out every time.
“But once I figure it out, it’s going to be ‘on.’”
To Mabry’s point, that he is better able to handle failure, Wong agreed that experience had been on his side. “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be here if that was the case,” said Wong, referring obliquely to being sent to the minors a couple of years ago.
“Look at the year he had last year,” said Garcia, Wong’s former college teammate at the University of Hawaii and pro teammate for almost every year of their careers since. “If that doesn’t give you confidence, I don’t know what will.
“You give that kid 500 at-bats, he’s going to hit .280, .290, .300 with damage.”
Wong, 27, said, “I know what kind of defender I am and what I bring to the table. When my offense also is clicking, I’m a really good player.
“The one thing that I’m never going to get rid of is my confidence, because when that’s gone, I’m done playing baseball. If you’re not confident in yourself, no one else is going to be.”