'Evolving' DeJong embraces big moment vs. Yanks

August 6th, 2022

ST. LOUIS -- To fully understand the immense mental growth made by Cardinals shortstop  over this season -- one in which he was forced to spend nearly three months of it in Triple-A -- you must consider the depths his confidence had plummeted to during a forgettable stretch of April and mid-May.

Nobody knows the true answer to that anxiety-filled issue better than DeJong, who pulled back the curtain to reveal how he likely would have approached the biggest spot in Friday's game earlier in the season when he was struggling in a variety of ways.

“Early in the year, I might have dreaded an opportunity like that,” said DeJong, referring to the spot in the bottom of the eighth when he drilled a 96 mph sinker for a go-ahead two-run double in the Cardinals' 4-3 defeat of the Yankees at noisy Busch Stadium.

“But now,” DeJong continued, “I’m thankful for an opportunity like that after everything that’s happened. … It was the idea of, ‘Oh no, here we go again,’ when I was struggling vs. now me wanting those opportunities. Now, it’s, ‘What’s the situation? We’re down one run in the eighth, and we’ve got to score, and I definitely want to be up.'”

DeJong’s two-run double that lifted the Cardinals out of a 3-2 eighth-inning deficit, and eventually to their fifth straight victory, reaffirmed something manager Oliver Marmol has been saying all season: The Cardinals are an infinitely better team when DeJong is starting at shortstop and thriving at the plate. As icing on the cake, DeJong did exactly what the Cardinals sent him to the Minor Leagues to do on the game-winning hit by using the whole field and being willing to go the opposite way to enhance his productivity.

“Not trying to do too much there and stayed with it,” Marmol said of DeJong jumping on Clay Holmes’ first pitch on the outer half of the plate. “He took what was given and, gosh, that was a big at-bat. That’s something to really build off there.”

Many in the Cardinals’ 10th sellout -- and the largest crowd of the season -- came to cheer Matt Carpenter and see him back at Busch Stadium for the first time in a jersey other than one with birds on a bat. That crowd got to give Carpenter -- a Cardinal great for the better part of 11 seasons before his swing took a downturn and briefly knocked him out of baseball -- a boisterous first-inning ovation. Also, it got to see Carpenter slap two singles into right field -- and it got to see him come to the plate with two outs in the ninth.

Again, DeJong was in the right place at the right time, and he confidently made the play to rescue the Cardinals for one of their biggest wins. With the defense in a shift that had second baseman Tommy Edman playing in shallow right field, DeJong had to cut across the diamond to field a check-swing slow-roller by Carpenter. Without hesitation, DeJong shoveled the ball to first to barely beat Carpenter to end the game.

Said DeJong: “I knew my only chance was to glove-flip it. I was kind of playing up the middle because I didn’t know if Carp would turn around [Ryan] Helsley’s 100 [mph], but I was aggressive to the ball, and thankfully, I got enough on the flip to beat him by a half step.”

Maybe it was only fitting that DeJong and Carpenter were at the crosshairs of Friday’s game considering the up-and-down nature of their careers in St. Louis. Carpenter is undoubtedly a future Cardinals Hall of Famer for the way he played over the first eight years of his career, hitting 133 of his 155 home runs with the Cardinals and 264 doubles before slumping to hit just .226, .186 and .169 from 2019-21.

Similarly, DeJong hit 25, 19 and 30 home runs early in his first three seasons from 2017-19 before free-falling to a .197 batting average in 2021 and a .129 start to this season before he was demoted to the Minors. It was Carpenter who was one of the first people to call his former teammate in mid-May while in Triple-A, to offer encouragement.

DeJong homered in his final three games of Triple-A action, and then again in his first two games with the Cardinals last week in Washington. Friday’s game-winning double was his second in as many nights and, again, it speaks to his incredible mental growth over the course of this uneven season.

“I feel like I’m constantly evolving,” DeJong said. “I’ll never be able to go back to where I was previously in my career, but I’m also different and better in other ways. Really, it’s just about using what I have today to make myself good and contribute to this team.”