JUPITER, Fla. » Every time he’s stepped to the plate this spring, Cardinals rookie Kolten Wong has carried the same presence with him, through his early clenched-teeth struggles to his current buoyant surge.
It is not the weight of grand expectations.
It is far heavier.
When Wong received his shipment of bats, he saw the name etched into the barrel was not his own. His agent and the bat company had copied a signature from a check or a document his mother signed so that on his bat it read, Karen Keala Wong, complete with the loops she put in her Ks. It is a subtle memorial near the strongest part of the bat for his mom, who died in December after a lengthy battle with cancer.
"It will be there with me all season," Wong said.
With one of those new bats, Wong homered and doubled Tuesday in the Cardinals’ 9-8 loss to the New York Mets at Roger Dean Stadium. Wong’s two-run homer, his first of the spring, continued what sparked over the weekend. Wong relaxed. Wong produced.
He hit a two-run homer on Wednesday and went 2-for-4 before resting on Thursday. He has reached base nine times in his past four games. Wong had the two extra base hits and two RBIs in his first three at-bats Tuesday before failing twice on bunt attempts to move the tying run into scoring position. The bunts got him down more than the homer elevated him.
This concerns the Cardinals.
"He wears stuff hard," manager Mike Matheny said. "He had a great day up until that point. He’s still not going to let that go."
Said Wong: "That … made me mad."
Wong, 23, came to spring with the first true chance in his career to win a starting job. The Cardinals cleared the way for him to be the everyday second baseman for 2014, or at the least part of a platoon with veteran Mark Ellis. This offseason, Wong spoke about earning the organization’s faith in him. He mentioned how he intended to prove the .153 hitter he was late last season in the majors is "not the player I am." He brought with him an intent to play for his mother, who got to see him appear in the World Series last fall. Wong had a tattoo of a ribbon inked into his right forearm for his mom. He put a lot on his shoulders.
And his manager and teammates could see how a hitless start to spring — he would go 10 at-bats and five games without one — caused him to deflate.
Matheny pulled him aside for a private talk.
The manager’s message was simple: relax.
"Kolten doesn’t need to be a grinder. He’s got so much talent," Matheny said. "Jimmy (Edmonds) was one where the more he just relaxed and just trusted the better he was. I think Kolten is going to be the same kind of player."
Last Friday, against the Mets, Wong rapped three hits, including a ground-rule double to deep center. That was the deep breath he needed. In the same game, he stole a base and had a couple slick plays in the field. He called it "a weight lifting." Hitting coach John Mabry helped Wong find his timing at the plate by watching the pitcher’s delivery and seeking clues in the on-deck circle. Wong walked and was hit by a pitch Sunday, and on Tuesday cracked a 2-1 pitch for a home run over the right field fence off Mets starter Jon Niese. He doubled to set up a two-out rally in the fifth inning.
But he botched a play in the field and returned to the dugout to find Ellis there with a suggestion. Wong tried to play the ball with two hands, instead of extending his reach with one.
A few innings later, he was able to recover to steal a hit with a diving catch down the right-field foul line.
"He’s trying to make an impression," Ellis said. "But he’s got to realize the organization knows what type of player he is. Just go out and play."
The game found him again in the ninth as the only starter to play all nine innings. With the Cardinals trailing by a run, the first two batters reached base. Wong’s sole responsibility was to get lead runner Randal Grichuk to third. Wong squared to bunt and each time pushed it foul down the third base line.
He did not get the sign to bunt on two strikes, but did it anyway to prove he could. His bunt was too close to the pitcher and Grichuk was thrown out.
"My game is not going to be hitting home runs and doing all of that stuff," he said. "My game is going to be moving guys over, doing the little things. When I can’t do that, basically the whole day is wasted."
Matheny wants Wong to learn from the misses, not let them drag on his confidence or start to show in his mannerisms.
At one point during his morning meeting with the media, Matheny stopped an answer and blurted: "Did you guys see that?" On the field, Wong had just done a backflip from a flat-footed standstill. Grichuk and other new teammates who hadn’t seen him do it before egged him on. Then he did a second flip when Ellis and others missed seeing it. Wong learned the backflip in college by going to a gym near the University of Hawaii for "Free Jump Friday." Matheny wasn’t sure if Wong would have felt as comfortable showing off during his hitless start.
The game was too heavy for him to flip.
"I can do it on command," Wong said. "I’m that confident with it."
The Cardinals want him to feel the same way with two feet on the ground.