CHICAGO — With a deeper scan of his injured hamstring and another day for the pain to relent, Kolten Wong and the Cardinals hope to have a clear view of the muscle strain’s severity and how long they’ll be without the player who helped lift them into the division lead.
Wong had an MRI taken of his left hamstring at a Chicago hospital Friday morning and the team physicians were reviewing the results later that day. The team will have their second baseman re-evaluated in Chicago on Saturday — it can take a day or two for swelling to subside and allow a sharper view of the injury — but there were traces of optimism in the diagnosis of a “mild strain.”
Wong had “less discomfort,” manager Mike Shildt said.
The immediate response from the Cardinals was the return of Matt Carpenter to the everyday lineup. With Tommy Edman moving to Wong’s positions — playing second, batting second — Carpenter slides back in as the Cardinals’ regular third base. Less than 12 months ago, Carpenter finished top 10 in the voting for the National League MVP, but this September found him coming off the bench after a summerlong search for his swing that led to a fall in his production.
Shildt has stressed throughout the past week that an ending to Carpenter’s season has not been written.
“A season takes a lot of twist and turns,” Shildt said.
The latest for Carpenter has been an upturn.
From cagily targeted use earlier this month to his game-winning homer Thursday after replacing Wong midgame in the lineup, Carpenter entered Friday’s start with nine hits in his previous 20 at-bats. In the previous dozen games — only four of which were starts — he had more RBIs (six) and as many doubles (four) as strikeouts (four) to go with a .450/.500/.800 batting line and a 1.300 OPS. Carpenter walked twice Friday in the Cardinals’ 2-1 victory.
“He’s a big weapon,” said Shildt, who also described a “crispness” to Carpenter’s recent cage work. “People have said a few things about this — look I’m a glass is half full guy. He’s not done what he wants to do. But in general, he’s had some big moments for us.”
After hitting the game-winning homer in the 10th inning Thursday, Carpenter referred to Wong as “a great player.” Carpenter has several times in the past week described how Wong’s ascent in the lineup and his .400 on-base percentage after the All-Star break helped unlock the offense. Without their steal leader, the Cardinals’ lineup shifts some, and the infield defense adjusts, too.
Wong is the leading candidate for the National League Gold Glove Award. Ballots are out for coaches and managers — they cannot vote for their own player — and a runner-up finish a year ago positions Wong to win it this year. Shildt said scanning the metrics that are provided with the ballots only crystallizes Wong’s claim to his first Gold Glove. A late-season absence, even if it lasts to the end, won’t derail his chances.
“I would be shocked,” Shildt said of Wong not winning the award. “I don’t think Kolten is going to need any help. One of the strengths of our team has been our defense, and Kolten has been a big part of that. It’s a word you don’t throw around lightly but it rings true: Kolten is an elite defender.”
During an eventful ninth inning late Thursday night — as the Cardinals lost a three-run lead only to win the game in the 10th — two moments tested their defensive position and invited some inside-baseball chatter Friday. One proved costly. The other offered validation.
With two on, one out, and Ben Zobrist up against Carlos Martinez’s power sinker, the Cardinals elected not to guard the lines against doubles. Instead, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt played off the line and back — narrowly missing the ball as Zobrist foiled the choice by pulling a double down the first-base line for an RBI.
“It’s something we talked about,” Shildt explained. “We do a lot of preparation to make the best decision so we can put guys behind the baseball. And we had them straight up because, candidly, he’s not a lot of pull-down-the-line-kind of guy. And he pulled it down the line. … Clearly, we weren’t thrilled about it. Always think about how we could have done it better, and what we could have done differently. We had logic behind it in the moment. You can feel good about that.”
Two batters later, another decision arrived with runners at the corners, one out still, and Jason Heyward at the plate. The Cardinals could have elected to play at double-play depth and get out of the inning or bring the infield in to get the out at home. They split the difference. They chose what the team calls the “X play,” and that’s positioning middle distance — and as a result they got the out at first, but had no chance at the double play. Shildt explained his choice by first quoting his mentors, George Kissell and Mark DeJohn.
“You’ve got to give up something to get something,” he said. “Kind of hedge your bet a little bit on that one. We practice it. And we practice it a fair amount. Ball is hit slow, we come home. Ball is hit with more pace we (try to turn two). We base our depth on the speed of the runners and the reality was we had good runners (Thursday), so we had to be a hair tighter and ultimately it pretty much worked out.”