CHICAGO -- The ever-sturdy, ever-reliable Paul DeJong has been such a constant in Cardinals lineups since he debuted in 2017 that the club has stressed the need to simply find their shortstop a breather over the course of this campaign and those of the past.
They didn’t quite have in mind the left non-displaced rib fracture that sidelined him for nearly a whole month, from May 14 until Friday’s series opener against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, where DeJong hit eighth in his return to the active roster. But the end result was the same nonetheless: a breather -- and a reset.
No place more symbolic is there for a return than Wrigley Field, where DeJong famously went back-to-back with Yadier Molina to hit a colossal go-ahead home run in the ninth inning of a Sept. 21 win.
"It's a new lease on the season for me,” DeJong said.
DeJong will now wear compression padding under his jersey to protect himself going forward, he said. The shortstop was struck in the side by a pitch on May 11, felt something grab when he tried to make a tag on a stolen-base attempt the following day, was ultimately pulled from the game, and placed on the injured list before the ensuing series opener in San Diego.
Rehabbing with Triple-A Memphis, DeJong went 1-for-10 with a double and a run scored across four games this week. His last outing -- a nightcap in a Wednesday doubleheader -- featured his defending another stolen-base attempt at second.
“I feel like I came full-circle with that,” DeJong said. “I kind of just felt like I was ready to come back.”
In the interim of DeJong’s absence, St. Louis got to see a player it's always valued highly internally, always expected to be a contributor at the big league level, do exactly that for the first time for a prolonged period of time.
Edmundo Sosa proved a more-than-capable plug-and-play option for DeJong, batting .286/.360/.390 in his 22 starts over that time period and injecting jolts of energy with his flashy defense, deft speed on the bases, and emotion in both those facets and several others.
In a mini 0-for-10 skid entering Tuesday’s two-game series with the Indians, Sosa went baby-faced and shaved his facial hair for the first time this season.
“Trying to do something new,” he said Friday, to break out of it -- a superstition. He promptly went 2-for-2 with an RBI single off reigning AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber in his first two at-bats following. He owns a 109 OPS+ on the season.
“A young colt looking to run,” as manager Mike Shildt described him recently.
And DeJong noticed while on the mend.
“We always knew he was a good player,” DeJong said. “I'm not surprised at all with what he came in and did.”
But what the return of DeJong simply does for this lineup is provide flexibility.
Sosa, who earned just 12 at-bats before taking over for DeJong full-time, can now be relied upon for far more, spelling DeJong a day at short or playing second base. That latter role on Friday, however, was taken by Matt Carpenter, swinging a hot bat with a .357 average and 1.026 OPS over his last 28 at-bats.
St. Louis has been hesitant to set up platoonships, but Sosa at second against lefties and Carpenter there against righties is certainly a possibility, with Tommy Edman seeming to get more right-field duties until Harrison Bader returns, likely in late June.
“It's good to be able to have options, right?” Shildt said. “... It strengthens our bench, quite honestly. A guy [Sosa] that is taking good at-bats, a guy that is playing good defense, a guy who can run and who can play the field. So that's a bonus, for sure.”
The Cardinals, though, will simply look for an uptick in production from DeJong, who entered play on Friday slashing just .177/.277/.371 across 35 games, before holding firm on any longer-term positional assignments. He got a chance to get his feet wet gradually on Friday, batting below sixth for the first time this season.