A year after he questioned whether he had a future with the Cardinals, Kolten Wong has become one of catalysts responsible for the team's recent success. (File) 

By Rob Rains

It was almost exactly a year ago that Kolten Wong, upset by his lack of playing time, stood in the Cardinals’ clubhouse and voiced his frustration and displeasure, openly questioning whether he had a future on the team.

A lot can change in a year.

Beginning on Aug. 3 last season, Wong started only five of a possible 22 games for the Cardinals before he spoke out.

“It definitely makes me feel a little uncertain about the offseason and my remaining time in St. Louis,” Wong said in that interview with STLSportsPage.com on Aug. 28 last year. “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 (Gyorko) 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.”

Fast forward 12 months, and Wong is again talking in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, but that physical similarity to last August does not reveal that he now finds himself in a much better place.

Wong has been in the starting lineup for 26 of the 30 games since the All-Star break, and has been one of the catalysts for the team’s climb back into the NL Central race.

Wong has posted a .319 average since the second half began – which coincided with his return from the disabled list – with an on-base percentage of .407. He has been even hotter in August, carrying a .409 average and an on-base percentage of .491 for the first half of this month into Tuesday night’s game in Boston.

“I never once doubted myself of being able to do what I’m doing right now,” Wong said over the weekend. “It’s a matter of getting a chance to play against both lefties and righties. I knew if I got that chance eventually things would turn around.

“Having had success throughout the minor leagues and throughout my career, it’s not a fluke.”

While Wong said he never lost confidence in his ability, he knew there were others who wondered whether he could succeed as an everyday player. He knew there were people who considered this season his last chance to prove it.

“I knew that, but I never really let it affect me,” Wong said. “I saw value in myself. I never gave up on myself. I know that I’m a good player. I’ve worked so hard my whole life to get to this point and I wasn’t going to give up on that fact because I’ve had a couple of years that were down.”

While it was not a fun experience to go through, Wong believes he came out of last season much stronger mentally, which has helped fuel his success this season.

“I think the biggest thing I gained from it is (the knowledge) that this is a tough sport,” he said. “I can’t go out there every day expecting to get four hits and if I don’t, go home pissed off. It just makes everything worse, it makes the game harder, it makes going home harder. It just made everything worse for me.

“This year I just kind of told myself if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. If it’s meant for me to start doing good and become a legit big league baseball player, it’s meant to be. If not, then hey I can say I at least made it to the big leagues.”

If how he has played the last two months is any indication of the future, Wong will be able to say much more than that.

“Mentally I’m in a different spot,” he said. “It’s kind of kept me where I am right now. I know as long as I put in the work and I do everything I know I can do before the game, the rest of it is out of my control.

“At the beginning of the season I knew I was still young and hadn’t been given my chance to be an everyday player. I think people are starting to see now that this is all I’ve ever wanted, to go out there every day and play the game. I’m not putting pressure on myself to get a hit every day. I’m putting pressure on myself to be the best teammate I can be and try to help this team win.”

Wong is not as worried about his future now as he was a year ago, for good reason.

“Like I’ve said from the beginning, I hope I can play my whole career here,” Wong said. “I want to be somebody like Yadi and those other guys. But how things went last year and at the beginning of this year it didn’t seem promising that I was going to be here long. I’m just glad the Cardinals gave me a chance to play every day and to see what I can do. Now they are starting to see the player I can be and I finally know my hard work is paying off.

“I kind of considered last year one of those years when things weren’t going my way. At the end of the season I literally said, ‘Screw this season.’ I’m not even going to think about it. I’m going to come in next year ready to play, ready to help the team win and see what happens. The biggest thing for me, mentally, was being able to say if I fail I’m going to fail playing this game as hard as I can and knowing that I’m doing everything I can do.”

By “everything” Wong also includes playing excellent defense. Over the same period his offense has improved, Wong has also stepped up defensively, committing only one error in 127 chances since the All-Star break.

Even though it’s supposed to be the goal of players who struggle offensively to not let it affect them on defense, that is easier said than done, and Wong knows that as well as anybody.

A big difference from last year - when Wong finished with a .240 average in 121 games – is that he is no longer worried about failing. Being free from that worry has been one of the keys to his success.

“This is the highest level of baseball you can get to and there’s going to be struggles in this game,” Wong said. “No matter who you talk to in this clubhouse they’ve all been through their share of struggles. The key is being able to build on a bad game instead of knowing if I have a bad game I’m not playing the next day.

“It’s finding that little thing that clicks for you mentally. Are you going to be able to check in every single day ready to play mentally and allow the failures of this sport, which happen a lot, affect you? I’ve kind of found a good spot where I don’t allow failures to affect me and I really don’t allow anything to affect how I am going to play. I’m having fun and I’m letting the rest take care of itself.”

Winning – as the Cardinals have done lately – also has a way of covering up many other issues within the game.

“All the bad breaks we’ve had, losing close games or losing games late, we all knew something had to change,” Wong said. “We knew we had the team to do it. To be a guy helping this team make this run, contributing as much as I can, has been great.”

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