ST. LOUIS -- Tabbed as the leadoff hitter on Opening Day and potentially the next star in a Cardinals galaxy already full of them, Dylan Carlson felt like everything was in place for him to have a breakout second season in 2022.
Then, a horrid April happened, complete with a .184 start to the season. Then, just as Carlson was finally hitting his stride and displaying his massive potential as a switch-hitting, five-tool player, the 23-year-old outfielder strained his left hamstring.
Given a third chance at proving he can be a major difference-maker for the Cardinals this season, Carlson came through in a big way. Even though he hadn’t faced a left-handed pitcher in weeks, Carlson unloaded on a hanging curveball out over the plate in the sixth inning Monday and drilled a game-tying three-run home run. It was the second opposite-field home run of Carlson’s brief Cardinals career, with the first one also coming against the Pirates on June 4, 2021.
However, Carlson drilling another ball off the wall two innings later -- this time as a left-handed hitter -- might have qualified as the greatest feat of the night. As catcher Andrew Knizner pointed out afterward, not one person in the Cardinals clubhouse was surprised by the power outburst from their talented outfielder.
“He’s one of the best young hitters in this entire game, so to get him back in the lineup is huge for us,” said Knizner, who had a single and a sacrifice bunt Monday. “He’s a guy who can change a game with one swing of the bat. DC has a great approach and a great swing, and for him, it’s just a matter of staying healthy. It’s no surprise to any of us. That’s DC, that’s who he is. DC rakes.”
Prior to injuring his hamstring May 21 while playing center field and replacing an ill Harrison Bader, Carlson had been as hot a hitter as Monday’s temperature at first pitch at Busch Stadium. At 96 degrees with a heat index of 110, it was the hottest game in St. Louis since July 24, 2016.
Carlson hit just .184 in April -- production low enough to cost him his job as the team’s leadoff hitter -- but he looked like a completely different slugger in May. Not only did he hit .314 with two home runs and seven RBIs in 20 May games, he had at least one hit in six of his last seven games and had 11 hits in 28 at-bats (.393) before straining the hamstring. That untimely injury proved to be extremely frustrating to Carlson and the run he had going at the plate.
“That was just as I started getting more consistent and getting more in the flow of things,” said Carlson, who hit off the high-velocity pitching machine while injured to stay sharp. “I was doing the necessary things to get back to where I wanted to be. It was unfortunate the timing of it because things were starting to get going, but I felt pretty good coming back here.”
Carlson’s rehab assignment started with three hitless games in Double-A Springfield, but he once again looked like a dominant, do-everything type of player in Triple-A Memphis. That’s when he smashed a home run and had a double to show Cardinals executives that he was ready to return.
“That definitely made the hamstring feel better and a little [looser],” Carlson said with a sly smile.
Following a 2-for-7 weekend against the Reds in his first MLB games back from the hamstring injury, Carlson mashed against the Pirates on Monday. Oddly enough, he’s reached base in his past 19 games against the Pirates and scored a run against the rivals from the NL Central in six straight games.
“We need DC in the lineup because he plays the field well, he’s a switch-hitter who can do it all and he can slap one out of the ballpark,” said fellow outfielder Tyler O’Neill, who had two hits Monday.
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol has said all season that the team’s lineup has the potential to have great length, especially with talents such as Carlson in the lower third to provide protection for Nolan Arenado, Goldschmidt and O’Neill.
“He took some really good swings tonight, and that homer was big for us,” Marmol said. “He was swinging it well right before he got hurt, and seeing what he did tonight is definitely a big plus for us.”