Wong sets out to prove he deserves starting spot
Former first-round pick has chance to become mainstay at second base
JUPITER, Fla. -- After erring in the brightest of lights and then standing under others having to answer questions about being picked off at the most unfortunate of times, Kolten Wong found his family.
His parents, Kaha and Keala, had traveled to St. Louis from their home in Hawaii, arriving in time to see the oldest of their three children play in the World Series. They celebrated Wong's first postseason career hit in Game 3, a Cardinals win. A day later, they became the support system.
Wong was picked off first base by Red Sox closer Koji Uehara to end Game 4 with Carlos Beltran, the potential tying run, at the plate. It ended up being the final time Keala Wong saw her son play. Less than four months later, she passed away after a lengthy battle against cancer.
"She told me that night that it's part of the game, it's going to happen," Wong recalled this week. "'Everybody is going to make mistakes,' she said. You have to learn from it and move on."
That singular moment would not be how a mom remembered her son. Nor is it what Wong wants to linger on as part of his legacy in St. Louis. It was easy for him to move on -- his mother's fight made a pickoff seem inconsequential -- and now he knows his task is to give those who watched him endure a sharp big league learning curve a reason to forget as well.
"What they saw last year was an embarrassment for me," said Wong, who went 9-for-59 after being called up from Triple-A in August. "It was just such a humbling experience for me failing as many times as I did up there. It was humbling, but it also lit a fire for me to come in here and prove that last year wasn't who I am. I have a lot more drive this year to come in and prove that I'm a good player."
The Cardinals open camp by offering Wong the chance for a second first impression. Looking past a small sample size of poor performance, the Cardinals left a spot open for Wong while tweaking their roster during the offseason. Mark Ellis was brought in as a safety net, but the job of starting second baseman remains Wong's to grab.
It marks the first time that the former first-round Draft pick has entered Spring Training with a legitimate shot at an Opening Day roster spot.
"I come in here knowing that this job is not mine by any means," Wong said. "I still have a lot more to prove. I have to show them that I'm ready to play up here.
"Mark Ellis, who they just signed, he could easily play second base. He's done it for a numerous amount of years. For me to make this team, I need to make an impression. That's something that I know and that I'm not taking for granted at all."
The Cardinals have not already handed Wong the job. But the organization stands by its belief that Wong's Minor League performance is an indicator of future performance. And indeed, there was little not to like about Wong's climb.
After being taken in the first round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, Wong hit .301 with a .365 on-base percentage on his way to St. Louis. He handled himself well defensively and molded himself into a stolen base threat.
Once in the Majors, Wong endured the toughest two-month stretch of his career. With limited starting opportunities, Wong fell into a pinch-hitting role that was unfamiliar. He struggled and pressed and eventually found himself lost at the plate. Over his last 41 at-bats, Wong tallied four hits.
"I wanted to make an impact as soon as possible," Wong said. "I wanted to show the Cardinals that I was ready to be there, and I think that was the wrong way of approaching it. I should have just come in and just played the game. But I tried to do too much instead of just staying within my abilities."
Wong found teammates to be the best sounding board and, in particular, he confided in Allen Craig while the two were sitting on the bench during the postseason. They talked about how the game slows down with time and how few players make a Yasiel Puig-like entrance into the Majors.
Wong left those conversations with a boost of confidence.
The positive reinforcement continued after the season, too, as he returned to his home state and went to work with his dad, who coaches baseball in Hawaii. They watched video of Wong's season, after which Wong worked on shortening his swing and reducing his leg kick. The adjustments were made so that Wong would stay more under control and get back to being a line-drive hitter.
"Little things to keep my swing crisp," Wong said.
Wong arrived in Florida days before he was required in order to acclimate to the change in time zone and get a jump start on translating that winter work into tangible spring results. He has a job to win and much to prove. He also has someone to honor.
"My mom was always there for me," Wong said. "Knowing that she was there for me and knowing that she is going to be there for me for the rest of my life is comforting. I'm excited to see what's going to happen this year, knowing that she's going to be giving me a little edge over some people."