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Wong working to lessen self-imposed pressure

JUPITER, Fla. -- Standing near the Cardinals' bullpen, his usual spot for his daily morning meeting with the media, manager Mike Matheny stopped midsentence as he answered a question about Chris Carpenter's new role within the organization.

"Did you guys see that?" Matheny remarked.

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Everyone turned.

"[Kolten] Wong just stood there, flat-footed, and did a back flip. That was effortless."

Wong did it again for a larger audience, dazzling the new teammates who had not seen him demonstrate his agility in such a manner before. It's a trick he learned in college, when he attended "Free Jump Friday" classes at the gymnastics center where his fiancée's roommate worked. After six or seven visits and practice on trampolines and into foam pits, he mastered the move.

"It took some guts to finally buy into it," Wong said. "But that's the thing: You really have to buy into a back flip in order to land it."

The same thing could be said for his pursuit of the starting job at second base.

Wong appears to be buying into his talents a little more these days, releasing some of the pressure he had been putting on himself to perform and prove his readiness for the opportunity to be an everyday player in the Majors. He played all nine innings in Tuesday's 9-8 loss to the Mets and finished 2-for-5 with a homer and a double.

Wong went hitless in his first 10 at-bats this spring, but in the 10 since, he's tallied five hits, three of which have gone for extra bases.

"I just had to come in here and relax," he said. "I put so much pressure on myself because I wanted to come in here and just be the guy instead of coming in here and being who I am and doing what I need to do to help the team win. Talking with Mike helped a lot; then [it was] just knowing that I'm confident with myself, that I can play at this level and then buying into it."

During that 0-for-10 start, Matheny pulled Wong aside and encouraged him to start having fun again. He could sense his second baseman was trying too hard, an approach that was setting him up for disappointment.

Matheny then watched as Wong exhaled after a three-hit game on Friday. Seeing the 23-year-old perform back flips was further evidence that Wong has found a way to have fun again.

"It would have been good to see [him doing back flips] even if he was struggling a little bit, to still have that freedom to be himself," Matheny said. "But still, I think it's a good step for him."

Wong has not, however, stopped being hard on himself. Though he hit his first home run of spring on Tuesday, he was more consumed by his missed sacrifice bunt attempt in the ninth inning. Instead of celebrating the diving catch he made in the eighth, he questioned the official scorer for not giving him an error on the grounder that skipped past him earlier in the game.

"He just wears stuff hard," Matheny said. "He had a great day up until that point, but he's still not going to let that go. That's the kind of player he is. It will evolve over time."

"That made me mad, because my game is not going to be hitting home runs," Wong said of the botched bunt. "My game is going to be moving guys over and doing the little things. I can't [miss those opportunities]. Basically, the whole day is wasted. I have to go in there and work on some things."

Matheny has given Wong extensive playing time this spring to help him find his timing and confidence. Only Jon Jay has logged more at-bats than Wong through the team's first 11 Grapefruit League games. Though Mark Ellis was signed in December specifically to provide insurance at second, the Cardinals still hope to see enough maturation from Wong to commit to him as their starter on Opening Day.

That all starts with Wong finding a way to channel the self-assurance that he shows when doing the back flip -- "Basically, I can almost do it on command," he said. "I'm that confident with it" -- and take that with him everywhere else.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.

St. Louis Cardinals, Kolten Wong