It was another day on the bench for Kolten Wong on Sunday, where he has spent the majority of his time this month. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

By Rob Rains

Before Saturday night’s game against Oakland, Kolten Wong leaned over the back of the couch in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, watching while Brandon Moss and Jedd Gyorko played chess.

Wong has done a lot of watching lately.

Expected to be the team’s starting second baseman after signing a five-year contract in spring training, Wong has instead seen his playing time disappear in the second half of this season.

Wong was on the bench again Sunday for the eighth consecutive game since he last started Aug. 19 in Philadelphia. He has started only six of the Cardinals’ 24 games this month.

The inactivity, he said before the Cardinals’ 7-4 loss to the A’s, has made this the toughest season of his career.

“It’s no one’s fault, there’s no blame going on anywhere,” Wong said. “I understand the situation. It’s not a fun situation to be in but it is what it is. You can either take it with a grain of salt and try to get better, or let it affect you.”

Wong has tried to take the later approach, after admitting that he did get upset when he first began to spend day after day sitting on the bench, getting only an occasional pinch-hit opportunity.

“At the beginning I was getting pissed off and mad at everyone because I felt it (the starting spot) was kind of taken from me,” Wong said. “But I told myself from then on ‘I’m not going to allow it to affect me. I’m going to come in every day and work as hard as I can and make these guys have to play me. If I’m not getting playing time I am going to do whatever I can pinch-hitting wise and show them I am here to work and make them have to play me, by getting hot at the plate or doing what I have to do to be that kind of player.

“That’s the only way I can look at it. … I understand how this season has gone. I know it’s been out of my control most of the time, but the one thing I can control is my mindset and understand that if I come in and get myself ready if something does happen I will be ready to go.”

The majority of Wong’s playing time has gone to Gyorko lately, and Wong knows that’s because Gyorko has proven to be a much-greater home run threat. Gyorko’s 14 homers since the All-Star break are the most in the National League and he has 22 on the season.

“This year has been a really weird year,” Wong said. “From how I’ve played in the Cardinal system until this year, it’s a big change. We’ve kind of went more toward a power perspective which I fully understand but that’s not my game. It’s never been my game to be a guy who is going to hit 20 plus homers.

“That kind of kicked me out of the equation real quick and I knew that as soon as moves were being made that we were kind of basing it around that.”

What perhaps bothers Wong the most about his current situation is that he really has not been told anything about his role on the team. He said he has been left to kind of figure it out on his own, a role which is completely new to him.

In his pre-game meeting with the media on Sunday, manager Mike Matheny acknowledged that this has been a tough year for Wong.

“He’s going through some tough adjustments,” Matheny said. “It’s not easy. There’s not a shortcut to get through it. He’s kind of finding his way.”

While doing so, Wong said, he has occasionally thought about the future and wondered if he could be approaching his final month as a Cardinal.

Gyorko’s presence, and a similarity in their age and contract status, cannot be overlooked as the team begins to plan for 2017 and beyond.

Wong knows that as well as anybody.

Wong, who will turn 26 in October, is two years younger than Gyorko, who will be 28 in September. Gyorko has played in 67 more major-league games than Wong.

Wong’s new contract guarantees him $23.5 million between 2017 and 2021, even if the team exercises a $1 million buyout for that season. With the Padres still paying part of Gyorko’s contract for the next three years, the Cardinals owe him a total of $21.5 million through 2020.

Wong said becoming a bench player was definitely not what he expected when the year began.

“I’ve become mentally stronger as a player,” he said of what he has gained from this year’s experience. “Having my starting position kind of taken from me has made me more hungry to come to the field and get better every day. I want to prove every single day the reason you guys gave me this contract is because you know how good a player I am. … I want to show these guys I’m not satisfied with just having a contract. I want to play; that’s the only reason I signed this contract.

“It definitely makes me feel a little uncertain about the offseason and my remaining time in St. Louis. When things kind of go this way and you get a contract and end up not even being a starter anymore, it’s a little sketchy. It’s going to be something my wife and I have to sit back and talk about and understand there is a chance I could not be here next year.

“Looking at it from a realistic standpoint, it makes sense when you have guys like Jedd who is having a great year and (Aledmys) Diaz. There is a lot of talent on this team, a lot of guys on the infield who next year are going to be fighting for a spot. Adding two and two together you just kind of see things … It’s been a tough year. I love being here, being in St. Louis. But it’s getting to the point where the arrows are starting to point a certain direction. I understand that, and I know this is a business. It is what it is.”

Wong hopes that isn’t the case. One of the reasons he volunteered to start playing the outfield, which he had not done since he was a freshman in college, was to increase his chances to start. Now, he has basically stopped taking fly balls during batting practice.
It all adds up to a lot of frustration.

“Especially after the deal I was given this offseason, I kind of wanted to come in this year and get more things put on me, and be that guy who plays every day but they had different ideas about how they wanted to attack this year,” Wong said. “Like they say each year is different. You have to roll with the punches.

“I love this game and I play as hard as I can every day. I want to be a starter. That’s the toughest part coming to the field and knowing that I am not a starter and understand this role and try to be as good as I can at it.”

One thing Wong certainly has not lost is confidence in his ability. He doesn’t believe his .237 average is an accurate reflection of what he can do, because of the sporadic playing time. After starting a combined 33 games in April and May, he has started 31 of a possible 76 games since June 1.

“I believe I’m the best second baseman in this league and I don’t think there’s that many guys who can really tell me otherwise, especially on what I can do on the field,” Wong said. “I take defense personal; for me that’s always been the Cardinal Way, being a good defender and being a grinder.

“It’s been the toughest year of my career. It was supposed to be one of the funnest times getting the contract under my belt, having the stability for my family and being set for the rest of our lives. But this year has been so tough mentally. I signed the contract because I wanted to be a mainstay on this team and I wanted to be a Cardinal for life. Now I don’t know.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains