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As Cardinals honor retiring greats' ‘last run,’ how spunky youth helped spur title pace

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In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols and more Cardinals to watch for this weekend. Plus, a happy birthday shoutout to Cairo, Ill., native Christopher Jackson from “Hamilton”! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

What the Cardinals have found in rookie Brendan Donovan to fill an immediate need is just a hint of what they think he can become in the years to come.

One of the highest on-base percentages for a rookie since “Moneyball” published and one of the highest for a Cardinals rookie ever has thrust Donovan to the top of the Cardinals lineup during a division title run. When the Cardinals host an opening-round playoff series in a week, it’s Donovan who is likely to bat first because of an element of his game the Cardinals think can climb even higher.

“This kid already looks comfortable, and he’s been here for two minutes,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “Give him years and it’s — gosh darn, man — the patience at the plate, his approach, all of that is what usually comes (with time). You usually have a skillset and then you have to hone your approach and your plate discipline. He already has those things. Give him a year and what do we do we have? I think you have a really productive, on-base machine.”

The Cardinals return to Busch Stadium for the final home series of the regular season and — as promised by the schedule — they’re a different team. In their 11 days away, the Cardinals clinched the National League Central title, Albert Pujols joined the 700-homer club, and rotation concerns persisted (or surfaced anew). The luxury of a series against Pittsburgh that will not change the standings or their seed into the postseason means they’ll spend time all weekend celebrating their retiring greats, Pujols and Yadier Molina, culminating with an on-field ceremony Sunday before first pitch.

There will be mentions of how in the past two decades these veterans help set standards for the organization as a perennial contender, and in the lineup, there will be examples of how the youth helped this year’s team keep that pace.

It’s as obvious as 1-2-3.

Donovan, the first-year player, leads all rookies with a .393 on-base percentage, nearly 50 points higher than the next qualified rookie in the NL. His OBP is the highest by a Cardinals rookie since Pujols’ .403 in 2001. Lars Nootbaar, a second-year player, has one of the top slugging percentages in the majors over the past week (.842), and he’s coming off a road trip when he had a 1.202 OPS with twice as many extra-base hits (five) as strikeouts (two). Dylan Carlson, a third-year player, had a couple of doubles of right-handed pitchers and has two series to claim everyday starts in center field, where he improves the defense.

Through the course of this season, they have grown into making key contributions, and their roles could be even more prominent in the postseason. If Donovan leads off the first game of a postseason series, it's just as likely Nootbaar is behind him at No. 2.

It’s not a coincidence. It’s a continuation that Nootbaar had the homer that ended the Cardinals’ long scoreless drought at the beginning of the road trip, that Donovan’s grand slam won the same game in San Diego, and in Milwaukee that Carlson complemented the offense with two doubles and two runs in the division-clincher.

“It’s always good when young guys come in and they’re not scared,” Marmol said. “That’s how they help the club. No doubt. If a young guy comes in and he’s not scared of the moment, then the old guys don’t have to worry about it. That’s a real thing. This guy is not going to be able to handle the situation? We have to do more to cover his inability to handle this when the old guy looks over and Donovan is just as gritty and not scared of the moment.

“Young guys have added to the culture by doing that.”

While just three members of the Cardinals’ 2022 youth movement — overall they’ve used 15 rookies, 20 with two or fewer years — this trio have had intertwining learning curves. They’ve had varying roles, varying playing time, promotions, a demotion and an injury that may have been more limiting in hindsight than recognized. Carlson missed several weeks with a hand injury that limited his swing from the left side of the plate and eventually put him in a platoon situation facing questions (not from the team) about continuing as a switch-hitter.

Earmarked as the Cardinals’ left-handed-hitting right fielder against right-handed pitchers with elevated velocity, Nootbaar struggled, returned to Class AAA Memphis and then used a cram session at the All-Star break to ignite his swing.

Donovan had the more direct, more accelerated slope — his production for the Triple-A Redbirds forcing the Cardinals to take notice and then a steady, sturdy stretch of production that had the Cardinals searching for playing for him at a variety of positions. In designated hitter, he’s started at seven positions, leaving only center field, catcher and pitcher unchecked. But it was a view from the bench at the beginning that gave him keener sight.

“You can learn a lot in this game at this level just by watching,” Donovan said. “When I first came up, I wasn’t in the lineup, so I just watched the routine (of the everyday players), and I was watching their in-game approaches. I could go off that because I wasn’t getting the in-game reps. Pay attention in the game and you’re just as ready.”

On the eight-game road trip, Donovan batted only .250 (5 for 20), but he had a .423 on-base percentage. He walked six times. This season, he has more walks and hit by pitches combined (70) than strikeouts (69). Since 2000, Donovan’s .393 on-base percentage ranks 17th all time for a rookie, snug beside Jason Heyward (.393) and Rafael Furcal (.394) and behind such luminaries as Aaron Judge (.402) and Juan Soto (.406).

Donovan and Nootbaar rank in the top four this season for the Cardinals in walks. Nootbaar has 49 to his pal Nolan Arenado’s 51 despite 285 fewer plate appearances.

In the division-title celebration late Tuesday night, as they ran out of Champagne to spray at each other, Nootbaar grabbed the microphone from the team’s in-house broadcast group and started interviewing teammates. Paul Goldschmidt grinned as he declined comment and ducked for cover in a room where the camera could not reach. Arenado played along, musing he might trade his 30 homers this season — all to the pull side — for Andrew Knizner’s one opposite-field launch in Milwaukee.

The day after, in his office, Marmol fielded questions about the contributions of young players — and not just on the field. Nootbaar’s jet-fueled joy and baritone laugh can be disarming. He popularized the pepper-grinder celebratory hand gesture, he cracks up Arenado, and he pledges he will get that interview and a laugh from Goldschmidt. Carlson is less overt than his fellow outfielder but a constant when there’s a gathering near the cage or in the outfield about baseball. And Donovan ...

“Grit,” Marmol interjected.

Earlier this season, Arenado said if he did not know better, he’d think “Donnie” was a 10-year veteran. Several times in the past few weeks, Goldschmidt has been asked questions ranging from his MVP candidacy to his September struggles, and almost every time, he mentions how big “Donnie” has been in the second half. When Pujols hit his 700th career homer Friday at Dodger Stadium, the first teammate there to hug him was Donovan. He was, of course, on base when Pujols connected.

Which bends that learning curve back to the veterans Molina and Pujols, who will receive tributes all weekend, and the regulars Arenado and Goldschmidt, who will be counted on to lead the Cardinals next weekend. The examples made, the expectations set provide direction for players in their first year, second year, third year and a destination for years ahead.

On Wednesday, Marmol mentioned one of the first phone calls he had with Pujols this past spring and how Pujols listed, by name, young players he thought he could help.

“I think it has a lot to do with our veterans, I really do,” Marmol said. “One, there is a comfort level when (young players) get here. We’ve had that in the organization for a long time. Two, this group has been very intentional about pouring into the Donovans, the Carlsons. I think that’s what is helping that learning curve and guys to not just stall out.”

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