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Heralded by hype, Taveras rises to occasion

With homer in second career at-bat, Cards top prospect justifies zeal for callup

ST. LOUIS -- "Everything is happy," Oscar Taveras said. And that was before he hit a home run in his second big league at-bat.

Happy? He's not the only one. St. Louis fans may be deliriously joyful over the arrival of Taveras, who is ranked as the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball by The Cardinals themselves are happy to have what they hope will be another very productive hitter in their lineup.

Whatever else happened at Busch Stadium on Saturday, this 21-year-old just set a new standard in the category of auspicious debuts. The Redbirds defeated the Giants, 2-0, snapping a three-game losing streak. Taveras put them on top to stay with a fifth-inning homer.

There had been plenty of hype leading up to this occasion, the arrival of an impact hitter to a team that had been atypically struggling to find consistent offense. With a young player, this can often be a recipe for disappointment. But Taveras was not overcome by the moment. Instead, he seized the moment.

Playing right field and batting sixth for the Cardinals, Taveras came up with one out in the fifth inning of what was a scoreless game. He then drilled a 1-0 slider from San Francisco's Yusmeiro Petit 418 feet to the back wall of the St. Louis bullpen in right-center.

"You never know when you put so much on a guy, I mean, there was an awful lot expected out of him," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "To come out and do what he did, I think it validates the kind of talent that he is, and hopefully the kind of mental toughness that he has to be able to come out and put a lot of the distractions aside. All the hype is a distraction, but he's obviously the kind of player that we've been talking about.

"The odds are against him because so much has been put into him getting here. For him to come up and do that in that situation, it's kind of mind-boggling. But he's got an opportunity to do some special things around here."

Taveras, originally from the Dominican Republic, smiles easily. He has been working diligently on improving his English and does his interviews without the aid of an interpreter. He was very happy when he spoke with reporters before the game. He was even happier after the home run.

"I'm so happy for the first big league home run," he said. "I'm so happy that I took a good at-bat and helped the team win."

What did he think when he hit the ball? Taveras chuckled. "Everybody knew it was gone," he said. "That was a good swing right there. I was so happy."

The Busch Stadium crowd of 44,426 gave Taveras a sustained ovation before his first at-bat of the game. After his home run, they demanded a curtain call. Taveras' teammates and coaches urged him out of the dugout to receive the crowd's tribute. It was a fine moment.

And then, as if on cue, the skies opened up, the rains came down and the game went into what would become a 47-minute rain delay. The Major League debut of Oscar Taveras had gone from very good to practically biblical.

It is nearly impossible to overstate the excitement caused by Taveras' arrival. He has torn up the Minor Leagues at every level. Ankle problems slowed his progression in 2013, but he has recovered fully. At Triple-A Memphis this season he didn't stop pushing, hitting .462 over the last 10 games.

There were other players called up before Taveras, including another young outfielder, Randal Grichuk, summoned from Memphis on Friday for the second time this season.

While Taveras was at Memphis, his status became a regular question. "Everybody says: 'Man, why aren't you called up?' " Taveras said. "I say: 'I'm just here doing my job.' Now I'm here [in St. Louis] trying to do my job."

He admitted to some pregame nerves, but said that once the game started the nervousness was gone. And he did not play like someone tied up with tension.

For the record, he fielded routine plays in right routinely. And in his two at-bats that did not produce home runs, he hit a fly to left and struck out swinging. But there is only one Oscar Taveras at-bat from his debut that will remain in the collective Cardinal memory.

This was a much-anticipated event, and Taveras delivered exactly what the situation required. Matheny made a point of saying that the arrival of any young player in the Majors was still "a big, big deal." It is an even bigger deal when the young player is the most heralded player in a system loaded with talent, arriving to play on a defending league champion.

"You know that I'm supposed to downplay it," Matheny said. "We bring a young player up, 21 years old, and that still blows me away. But I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't excited. There's excitement for a reason, because he's an exciting talent. Hopefully, this will be the right time to get it going."

Saturday, Oscar Taveras made it exactly the right time.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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