DeJong raking with revamped mindset: 'I can just have fun'

May 23rd, 2023

CINCINNATI -- Rather than constantly obsessing over the past and looking to distance himself from demons that came out during the worst two-plus seasons of his career, Cardinals shortstop came into this year focused on the present and the presents around him.

That mindset, combined with some significant changes to his approach at the plate, has led to a revitalization of his career that even has DeJong surprised now that he is among MLB’s leaders in home runs by shortstops.

“We have some really great players here, and I just opened my eyes to the great opportunities that I have to be here and wear this uniform,” said DeJong, who smashed a three-run home run and doubled in the tying run of a game the Cardinals ultimately lost, 6-5, in 10 innings to the rival Reds. “That really propelled me to have fun and be in the moment, as opposed to in years past wanting to hit certain benchmarks subconsciously. Those thoughts have melted, and I can just have fun with these guys.

“I can watch highlights from 2019 and realize, ‘Hey, I still get to throw the ball to Paul Goldschmidt every day,'” DeJong added. “Or, ‘I have Nolan Arenado right next to me. Or Adam Wainwright and all these other great players.’”

DeJong, who spent most of the past two seasons either struggling mightily or demoted to Triple-A, has become a great player for the Cardinals again with his steady power surge. On Monday, he hit his eighth home run of the season -- a three-run blast to wipe out an early 2-0 deficit -- which moved him into some elite company. Only Toronto’s Bo Bichette (nine) has more home runs from the shortstop position than DeJong and Milwaukee’s Willy Adames (eight). What makes that feat even more impressive is the fact that DeJong injured his back midway through Spring Training and didn’t play for St. Louis until April 23.

The 410-foot homer wasn’t even DeJong’s best swing of the night, according to Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol. His choice was DeJong driving a pitch on the outside corner to the opposite field for an RBI double that scored National League Player of the Week Nolan Gorman to knot the game at 5 in the eighth inning.

“Yeah, he’s done a really nice job, especially when he's using the whole field,” Marmol said. “When he first came up [from the rehab assignment], he did a really nice job of driving the baseball to that right-center gap, and he showed some real power that way. That double was a good indication of where he's at [mentally] right now. He's feeling good, pulling homers and hitting doubles to right-center. So overall, some really productive at-bats from him.”

One of the Majors’ hottest teams after taking five of seven from the Brewers and Dodgers the past week and winning 11 of their past 14 following a dreadful 10-24 start, the Cardinals fell on Monday night, but not because they didn’t have chances. St. Louis stranded 12 runners -- largely because of its 14 strikeouts throughout the game. Reds closer Alexis Díaz loaded the bases with three walks in the top of the ninth, but the Cards couldn’t pay when Goldschmidt, Arenado and Gorman each whiffed with the go-ahead run in scoring position.

“We had several opportunities, but we couldn’t come up with another big hit,” said Marmol, whose squad came into Monday leading the Majors in runs per game (7.2) and OPS (.859) over its past 14 games. “DeJong had some really good at-bats for us with the home run and the backside double, but overall we had some we left on.”

For DeJong, everything now is about balance -- balance in his life and staying present and balanced in the batter’s box. The 29-year-old spent his entire offseason working at the Cardinals’ complex in Jupiter, Fla. He shed the high leg kick from early in his career -- one that produced 30, 25 and 19-homer seasons. Instead, he opted for a minimal stride approach that keeps him better balanced and allows him to be on time regardless of the speed of the pitch.

All that work has led to immensely gratifying results for DeJong, whose 2019 All-Star appearance was seemingly a lifetime ago.

“It’s great, but it’s a continual process for me and [hitting coach] Dan [Nicolaisen], and I’m always talking to [lead hitting coach] Turner [Ward] and [assistant hitting coach] Brandon Allen about little things and mental-approach edges,” DeJong said. “When to be aggressive and when to see a pitch. But I’m very grateful to be out there every day and get these opportunities."