When Dylan Carlson found out he was returning to the active roster and spoke with Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak on Thursday, the conversation was simple: Trust yourself. Have fun. Show what you can do.
That’s exactly what Carlson did in his first game back.
With a three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning, Carlson put the exclamation point on the Cardinals’ six-run frame in Friday’s 7-2 win over the Pirates in Game 2, giving St. Louis a doubleheader sweep at PNC Park. Starter Daniel Ponce de Leon gave the Cards five innings of two-run ball before the offense, led by Carlson, took over.
“In the moment, I was just fired up to come through for the team there,” Carlson said. “It’s definitely a good feeling, something to build on.”
The rookie crushed a 93 mph fastball from Pirates reliever Chris Stratton into right-center field for his second career home run. It came off the bat at 108 mph, according to Statcast. The homer came after getting a boost from Pittsburgh’s defense -- three errors, one a catcher’s interference, contributed to the big inning -- but the Cardinals will take a win any way they can get it at this point in the season. St. Louis (24-24) stayed tied for second place with the Reds (26-26) in the National League Central, with the Brewers (24-26) trailing by one game.
Friday was a welcome return for Carlson, the switch-hitting outfielder who is the Cardinals’ top prospect. Carlson also singled in the fifth inning and made a solid catch as a defensive replacement in Game 1 of the doubleheader -- showing the Cards exactly what he could do for them down the stretch.
After hitting .162 in 23 games and striking out 23 times in 74 at-bats when he first debuted last month, Carlson was sent to the alternate training site in Springfield, Mo., with homework. The club wanted him to reset, evaluate and come back with a fresh mind.
“I think things started speeding up a little bit,” Carlson said. “I got out of my game and the way I play the game. Taking a second off definitely let me gather myself and come back here and regain that edge. I have something to prove coming back out here.”
Carlson looked at video and the numbers that pitchers use to plan against him. He saw what everyone saw: He faced an overwhelming amount of breaking balls, and it caused him to fall out of his approach. Carlson went to work in the batting cage and on the field against St. Louis’ fellow top prospects to find, as manager Mike Shildt called it, his “anchor.”
The result? Smoother and relaxed play.
“You could see even in his early at-bats with more clarity to what he was doing and what he was looking to do,” Shildt said. “The single might have relaxed him a little bit, and then you just saw a nice fluid stroke [on the homer].”
Ponce de Leon has been where Carlson was -- sent back to the Minors to learn how to trust himself and work his way back. The righty has described the goal as trying not to be “too perfect.”
“He comes up here and he looks like he had the weight of the world on him,” Ponce de Leon said. “Today you see [him] a lot smoother in his play, and just a couple more innings under his belt, he’ll be grooving nicely.”
In the past week, Ponce de Leon has demonstrated what it’s like to clear that hurdle. Carrying over what he flashed in his last start, he struck out nine in five innings in Game 2. His only mistake was on a 1-0 fastball to Bryan Reynolds, who launched it 436 feet into the Allegheny River beyond right field at PNC Park.
Ponce de Leon didn’t find out he was starting Friday until he looked up at his TV in the hotel room Thursday night to see Austin Gomber in the game, taking over for an injured Dakota Hudson. Ponce de Leon got a text shortly thereafter from Adam Wainwright: “You’re starting tomorrow.”
“Felt all right,” Ponce de Leon said. “That’s a testament to the trainers. I was in there the last three days getting worked on, getting my mind right, getting ready to throw some bullets, and they got me feeling good.”
Ponce de Leon threw 86 pitches, 57 for strikes. Fourteen of the 15 swings and misses he registered were on his four-seam fastball, which flummoxed the Pirates. Eight of his nine strikeouts were on the heater. In his past two starts, Ponce de Leon has struck out 18 batters in 11 innings and allowed four runs.
“When he dominates that strike zone, he dominates,” Shildt said. “His stuff’s good. He’s got that pop on his heater, and his breaking ball is really good. He’s in the zone, and when he does that, you see what you get. Very effective.”