DENVER — With Pittsburgh’s 240-pound slugger Josh Bell barreling toward him at second base this past weekend at PNC Park and a double play his to turn, Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong opted to go “perpendicular because I don’t like going vertical.”
Rather than trying to leap over Bell’s slide, DeJong crossed the bag laterally so that if Bell wanted to disrupt the throw, he’d have to follow him away from the bag. The approach worked – until DeJong’s cleats slipped on the bag, and as he made his throw he fell. He doubted his throw to first would make it and didn’t have a clear of view Paul Goldschmidt’s reach to complete the double play.
Just another in their 100 or so together.
While discussing his middle infielders Tuesday at Coors Field, manager Mike Shildt said DeJong and Kolten Wong are “potentially underrated.” He continued, “Our double play conversion rate is higher than anybody in baseball. That’s one thing you can do is you can get two outs on one play pretty consistently. They’re able to do it.”
The Cardinals lead the National League with 149 double plays turned this season, and they’re two behind the White Sox for the overall lead. The Cardinals last led the NL in double plays turned in 2013 and topped the majors with 167 in 2011. But it’s been since 2005 that the Cardinals have had a middle infield as deft as DeJong and Wong at spinning two. The last tandem of Cardinals middle infielders to lead their positions in double plays turned in the same season was shortstop Pete Kozma and second baseman Matt Carpenter, but neither eclipsed 100.
Shortstop David Eckstein, with 123, and second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, with 108, were the keystone duo for a team that turned 196 double plays. They were also the last Cardinals to each have 100 double plays in the same season at their respective positions. Wong had 98 entering play Tuesday, and DeJong already had 102, 14 more than any other shortstop.
“Kolten is really quick with his turns,” Shildt said. “That can help as well as a guy with a really strong arm like Grudzielanek.It can be a bonus when turning double plays. Think about it. It’s a race, right? However quickly you’re trying to get the ball to second base (and) to first with the speed of the runners.”
To win that race, DeJong suggested he and Wong had to learn not to rush.
One of nine different shortstops Wong has played alongside during his career with the Cardinals, DeJong has brought stability to the position — and it started early. Wong joined DeJong in Jupiter, Fla., three weeks before the start of spring training to continue working on their connection as a tandem, and they continue to work during pre-game infield, sometimes even with flare.
“I think it’s more about not speeding up,” DeJong said. “I don’t feel like we have to try and speed up. The ball dictates what we’re going to do with it. It’s really about catching and throwing at a normal pace for us – and that’s usually enough to get the double play.”
The Cardinals’ double-play rate is helped by the numbers of power-sinkers on the staff – namely Dakota Hudson and closer Carlos Martinez – but that’s only an indicator of opportunity. The Cardinals entered Tuesday with 105 fewer groundouts as a pitching staff than their opponent, Colorado, and yet the infield had turned eight more double plays. Five teams have allowed more groundouts than the Cardinals, steering their success back to what Shildt called “potentially underrated.” Goldschmidt leads all first baseman in majors by being a part of 127 double plays, including the one that DeJong got him despite the slip.
DeJong said he doesn’t know the exact numbers, only that he and Wong each have solid footing near the top of their positions.
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“I don’t want to dive too deeply,” DeJong said. “I just want to keep making plays.”
WIETERS AWAITS NEXT STEP
Before Wednesday’s game, catcher Matt Wieters will again test his strained left calf in hopes of overcoming the final hurdle between him and availability. Wieters has been unable to go comfortably from a standstill to a sprint. That would limit him running out of the batter’s box and on the bases, but it also might invite a more significant injury if pushed, he said.
Wieters and the Cardinals had hoped for him to be available at some point on this road trip because he’s hasn’t had difficulty catching or getting out of the squat.
“The big thing is we don’t want to come back and risk a worse injury that takes me out of the end of the year or a chance to help this team in the playoffs,” Wieters said. “We’re obviously thinking about getting there first. You don’t want to come back too early and then you’re missing the real fun part of the year.”
Unable to do anything with a schedule but play it, Shildt said the only time he really looks ahead is so that “you’re aware where you’re going to pack the right amount of clothing (and) for how long.” The timing of the annual visit to Colorado allowed him to bring layers.
Not in his suitcase, but on his roster.
At a ballpark that can test any team’s depth, a pitching staff doesn’t have to wheeze quite as much in September. This season, for the last time, teams can expand their active roster to 40 players for the final month. Next season, teams will have to declare a limited roster for games, thus reducing the active bullpens for each games. The Cardinals are currently carrying 12 relievers, including long relievers Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley and Daniel Ponce de Leon. That’s ample protection for a place where teams have been known to juggle their staffs during the series because of relief usage.
“My hope, and I hope I’m not naïve to this, is I believe if you make quality pitches and you take quality at-bats regardless of where you play you’re going to have success,” Shildt said. “Obviously it’s more of an offensive park. Our mindset with our pitchers is to make the pitches. Clearly, if you need pitching, we have it. Our plan isn’t to go through a lot of pitching. But it’s there.”
Top prospect Dylan Carlson, a 20-year-old switch hitter who reached Class AAA Memphis this season, was named to Baseball America’s All-Star team as one of its three outfielders. The team is selected from all of minor-league baseball. Carlson had a 20-20 season with 26 homers and 20 stolen bases to go with a .914 OPS overall. … At home this season, the Cardinals went 14-4 against NL West teams, including four-game sweeps of the Rockies and Dodgers. They outscored NL West clubs at Busch 101 to 54. … Entering Tuesday’s game, Matt Carpenter had yet to homer at Coors Field — the only ballpark in the NL he’s played without yet slugging one.