Kolten Wong says he is going to start smiling and having fun again instead of worrying about getting hits. (Scott Rovak/USA Today Sports)
By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – Kolten Wong is learning to smile again.
The smile, he says, was missing in the Cardinals’ first few games of the spring as he let the pressure of trying to prove he should be the team’s starting second baseman affect him.
Wong did not get a chance for his first hit of the spring on Thursday because of rain which wiped out the Cardinals’ game against the Twins in Ft. Myers. He knows he is officially 0-for-10 for the spring, but more importantly to him, he was 2-for-2 in smiling before his at-bats in Wednesday’s win over the Red Sox.
“I told myself ‘I’m done trying to pressure myself; I’m done worrying about what’s going to happen,’” Wong said. “I’m just going to go out and play and enjoy my time.”
That is exactly what manager Mike Matheny wants him to do. The last thing Matheny wants is for Wong to be too hard on himself, which he knows would only make matters worse.
“Mike can see it, he played the game, he knows all the pressures that come with it,” Wong said. “He told me to have fun. He tells me before every at-bat that he wants to see a smile before I get up there. Having him tell me that allows me to kind of take a breather.
“There were no smiles from me the first couple of games. You want something so bad that you are going to do whatever you can to get there. When you don’t see the progress you start to get down on yourself and that’s what I was doing. Mike saw that early and approached me. That’s a good thing for me to have a skipper like that, that he cares about you so much that he comes to you early to make sure you don’t continue down that path.”
What Matheny has tried to tell Wong is that there are other ways to measure progress besides the number in the hits column, especially this early in spring training.
For a young player, however, especially someone trying to prove he belongs in the starting lineup, that is easier said than done.
“He’s getting his timing right,” Matheny said. “It’s the first week of March. He’s going to be just fine. He’s just got to breathe a little bit and let his talents shine.”
As hard as he worked this winter in his native Hawaii, several hours a day, Wong did not face much live pitching – which is the only way he knows to get himself prepared for the season.
“The important thing for me is seeing pitching,” Wong said. “With my swing and my leg kick, it’s so important that I get my timing down and I start getting my rhythm. I’m seeing progress and I’m excited about going forward.
“It’s about pitch movement and pitch speed. The only way you can get good is if you see pitches. I need to see as much as I can, in games and live BPs, as often as I can. Everything I need is just to see pitches.”
Matheny and Wong both pointed to his last at-bat on Wednesday, when he worked the count and drew a walk, as a sign of the progress he is making.
“I want to see myself get hits,” Wong said. “If I’m learning and seeing progress, that’s all that matters. Seeing pitches, my timing and where it’s at, it’s feeling really good.
“It’s coming along. It’s a process. For me it has been a slow process, but I can see it.”
The slow start to the spring has not altered Wong’s confidence in his ability. He knows he has hit at every level he has ever played, including a .303 average at Triple A Memphis last year. In 1,129 career at-bats in the minor leagues, Wong posted a .301 average. He knows that by September, nobody will care, or remember, what he hit in March.
“The biggest adjustment level for me was going from Double A to Triple A,” Wong said, “In Double A you face guys who throw really hard and in Triple A guys nit-pick at the corners and try to find your weakness every at-bat. I made that adjustment pretty quickly. If I continue to work hard I should be able to make the adjustment here.
“I’ve earned everything in my life. I’ve never been given anything. I’ve worked and worked and worked and I want this challenge. I want to continue working. If I don’t get hits I don’t get hits, but if I see progress that’s all that matters to me. When it comes to the season I know I will get where I need to be.”
While neither Matheny nor Wong himself has any doubts about Wong’s ability to play at the major-league level, another source of confidence for the 23-year-old player arrived in Jupiter on Wednesday. Wong’s father Kaha is going to spend the next 18 days in Florida, watching both of his sons play – Wong for the Cardinals and his other son, Kean, drafted in the fourth round last year by Tampa Bay out of high school.
“He’s not getting his hits but he will get them,” said Kaha Wong, who played in the minors for two years. “The other parts of his game are coming along. We worked hard in the off-season and he will get it. He will be OK.”