SAN FRANCISCO -- After months of cobbling together an infield minus two of their up-the-middle-stalwarts, the Cardinals' alignment returned to full strength Friday. The club activated shortstop Paul DeJong, who had been sidelined for seven weeks with a broken left hand, prior the second of a four-game set against the
SAN FRANCISCO -- After months of cobbling together an infield minus two of their up-the-middle-stalwarts, the Cardinals' alignment returned to full strength Friday. The club activated shortstop Paul DeJong, who had been sidelined for seven weeks with a broken left hand, prior the second of a four-game set against the Giants. He batted sixth in his return to the lineup.
"Today is finally the day, and I'm really excited," DeJong said. "I think I learned how to watch the game better [during this stretch]. How to read the starting pitcher, what he's trying to do. I'm interested to getting back out there, start talking to guys and be an extra set of eyes out there for us."
Left-handed Austin Gomber was optioned to Triple-A Memphis in a corresponding move, giving the Cardinals a rare seven-man bullpen. In doing so, the Cardinals were able to keep Yairo Munoz, DeJong's primary replacement, on the roster. Gomber will return to the rotation at Memphis, after transforming into a high-leverage reliever following his promotion last month.
"His future is in the rotation," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.
DeJong's return comes on the heels of a four-game rehab stint at Memphis, where he hit .308 with a home run and three RBIs in 15 plate appearances. He had progressed consistently and without setbacks in the weeks prior, hopping from light baseball activity to live batting practice over a 10-day span last month.
DeJong plans to wear a protective guard over his batting glove to prevent against future fractures; he required surgery to his fifth metacarpal May 17, a night after being struck by a slider from Phillies reliever Luis Garcia.
"At this point I don't want to get hit by another pitch in the same spot," he said. "It's more mental for me. I don't feel the pad on my batting glove, so for me it's a non-issue."
The injury initially came as a surprise to the Cardinals, and at a critical time. A replay review was required to determine whether DeJong was even hit by the pitch, and he showed little discomfort afterward, remaining in the game and taking another at-bat an inning later. Only after the Cardinals dropped a 6-2 contest to the Phillies did an X-ray reveal the fracture, adding DeJong to a list of injured Cardinals that, at the time, included Yadier Molina and Carlos Martinez.
St. Louis' most valuable player by a range of metrics at the time, DeJong was hitting .260/.351/.473 with eight home runs and 19 RBIs before the injury. He was the only Cardinals player to start every game up to that point.
All of which sent the Cardinals scrambling for a solution at shortstop, arguably the organization's thinnest position. Jedd Gyorko, Greg Garcia and Munoz shared the duties initially, but in the end it was the rookie Munoz who saw the bulk of the playing time in DeJong's absence. Munoz hit .302/.341/.429 in 40 games, though he rated as a below-average defensive shortstop over that stretch.
St. Louis went 22-23 without DeJong. The club is 75-68 when DeJong starts since his MLB debut last May.
"The tendency right when you come back is to show everything, more than what you need to," Matheny said. "But Paul has a maturity about him that he's had since he got here. He handles situations very well. Hopefully he'll just pick up where he left off."
Around the horn
• Gomber, a rookie, led the team with 15 appearances since his MLB debut last month, pitching to a 3.77 ERA and earning assignments against both righties and lefties. His next outing is scheduled for Sunday.
• The Cardinals were relieved when an MRI showed no structural damage in Bud Norris' right index finger Friday and are hopeful the closer can avoid a DL stint. Sidelined since exiting Wednesday's win in Arizona, Norris tested the injury with a game of catch Friday afternoon, his first baseball activity since suffering a mysterious "pulling pain" in his second digit. Norris also consulted a hand specialist to find the cause of the discomfort, which affects the way he throws his sinker.
"At this point, with this season, we're going to get every look at every guy that we can," Matheny said. "If they get a runny nose I think we'll have two doctors check it out. That's just the kind of year it's been."
• As part of what Matheny called the Cardinals new defense-focused "initiative," Jose Martinez sat for the second straight game and third time in five days. The club's most consistent hitter for much of the first half, Martinez's struggles at first base have forced the Cardinals recently to consider moving him to right field. There he faces the same playing-time challenges slumping William Fowler has -- the fact that Harrison Bader continues to impress there. Bader combined his elite speed and defense with a 3-for-5, two-run-homer night Thursday, prompting Matheny to say: "How does he not go back in there? That's the first thing that comes to mind."
Martinez entered Friday hitting .293/.359/.483, but his seven errors lead NL first basemen.
"We're still figuring it out," Matheny said, on where Martinez fits going forward.
• The Cardinals announced Friday that longtime vice president of communications Ron Watermon has left the club to write a book, teach and form a communications company that will help brands develop and implement their own brand journalism strategies. Watermon worked for the club for 17 years.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.