JUPITER, Fla. • On what could have been a routine ground ball skipping up the middle Sunday, Paul DeJong broke from shortstop like Kolten Wong figured he would, fielded the ball in the position that Wong would have predicted, and threw on the run exactly as Wong expected. It was a play DeJong has made dozens of times before and, if all goes well, will make hundreds of times again. And Wong wants to see each one coming.
He wants to know DeJong’s move before DeJong makes it.
He wants instincts for DeJong’s instincts.
“Every duo up the middle wants to have that counterpart out there that you know, and you know ‘I’m going to be with this guy for a while,’” Wong said. “I’m going to get comfortable with this guy. And, eventually, you just start flowing. That’s when ‘SportsCenter’ comes. That’s when highlights happen. All that stuff comes together. You become the guys that know when the ball is in a certain area, you’re going to make that play. I hope to get that with Paul.”
During a career year, sporadically interrupted by injury, Wong led the team in starts at second base for the fourth consecutive season. He became the first Cardinals second baseman since Tommy Herr in the mid-1980s to have a deed on that position for that long. Unlike Herr, who had a Hall of Fame “counterpart,” Wong keeps cycling through sub-leasers. He has manned second with nine different shortstops, from Aledmys to Kozma.
DeJong, the Cardinals’ second-year shortstop, is set to make his first opening day roster, and he’ll be the Cardinals’ 10th opening day shortstop in 11 years.
He was 8 years old the last time the Cardinals had a long-term tandem turning two. With Wong signed to an extension, and DeJong having discussed one with the Cardinals earlier this spring, they could be the keystone for years.
“To me, this is going to be a long-term situation,” DeJong said.
After a few solo appearances to begin spring training, DeJong and Wong have started together in their past two games. In Sunday’s 4-1 loss to Houston, they didn’t have a chance to spin a double play, and each player made an error. Wong fought a gusting wind and dropped a popup in foul territory. DeJong threw high to first base on a grounder. It was his first error of spring. Manager Mike Matheny said he intends to keep his middle infielders linked as often as possible for the remainder of Grapefruit League games. They’ve been that way, voluntarily, since January.
Still relatively new to shortstop, DeJong reached out to first-base coach Oliver Marmol about getting some independent study at the team’s Roger Dean Stadium complex. Marmol said third-base and infield coach Jose Oquendo was around, too, so come on down. Wong joined them about three weeks before the start of spring training, and there they were: two coaches plus two players trying to equal a force. For DeJong, who played anywhere he had to from college to minors to get in the lineup, the chance to focus on one position has been a revelation.
He called it a “rejuvenation.”
“It’s almost like it’s rejuvenated me defensively,” he elaborated. “I’m more excited to play defense. I never really had a true position going through the system. I played third, but it didn’t feel so natural. Shortstop feels comfortable — comfortable and natural.”
DeJong first made the move to shortstop at Class AA in 2016, out of necessity. One of the Cardinals’ minor-league coordinators, Ron “Pop” Warner, encouraged him by telling him there are only so many types of ground balls, and if you practice each of them then they’ll be familiar in a game. Warner was quoting George Kissell, who wrote out all of the types of ground balls each position will experience — and those lists are in all Cardinals coaches’ handbooks. DeJong has been running through them with coaches ever since, and becoming more familiar, more instinctual with any he might see from short. Coaches called him a “quick study.”
Wong has noticed.
“Paul is a lot better just in the time we’ve been down here, right now,” Wong said. “I’ve seen the growth. I’ve seen him make plays now where he’s practiced and it’s all reaction. Before you see Paul thinking about how he’s going to attack a ball, how he’s going to make a throw. Now, it’s more reaction. He’s putting a whole game together.”
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One of the first coaches Wong met after signing with the Cardinals as a first-round pick was Oquendo, who handed him a DVD of ways to safely turn a double play. Oquendo felt Wong was exposing himself to injury. Even in the minors, he was just a phone call away. DeJong is getting his first extended exposure to Oquendo and the coach’s fielding drills this spring, with Oquendo back on the big-league staff.
Oquendo has shifted DeJong’s position and how he gets to his throw.
“I’m itching to make a play where I go to my backhand and I’m not throwing on the run,” DeJong said. “We’ve been practicing setting my feet in the hole.”
DeJong reached the majors last year in late May, playing second in Wong’s absence, and by late June he had supplanted Aledmys Diaz at shortstop. The position overall for the Cardinals was a minus-10 Defensive Runs Saved, yet DeJong was even. He ranked 18th among shortstops. Through drills with Oquendo, he has become “more confident making the fundamental plays.” Oquendo has each fielder go through a series of grounders, and then will tell Wong and DeJong that a speedy runner is at the plate, so turn this double play quicker, quicker yet.
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That’s where Wong is getting a feel for DeJong’s feed. He called it the shortstop’s “tendencies,” and he described being able to anticipate each other, even when a play is rushed.
For DeJong, Oquendo has suggested he play closer to second, stressing that grounders to the hole on his backhand side are more likely to be hits and grounders up the middle must be outs. From that spot, he was still able to make a backhand stop this past week against Baltimore, and on Sunday it put him in position to get to that grounder up the middle. Wong kept his distance, knowing instantly DeJong had the better angle. And he did, right up until making the throw on the go — and it sailed on him.
There’s still time to fine-tune. Lots of time, they hope.
“I think we could be that solid, up-the-middle cornerstone that we just go and the team starts to rely on in tough games, tough series, and in the playoffs,” DeJong said. “To me, we’re laying the groundwork now to prepare for those situations, to be that. I am looking forward to several years of this.”