WASHINGTON — Maybe it started with the hits he got off lefthanded relievers late in a game, or perhaps it's more recent than that and has to do with the two home runs he's hit on this road trip, including one in his two-for-three game Monday against Nationals.
As the Cardinals tiptoe back to full health in the outfield, rookie Justin Williams has forced his way into mix for playing time.
With Washington lefty Patrick Corbin on the mound Tuesday night at Nationals Park, the Cardinals shifted some of their lineup — Tommy Edman comes in to play second; Austin Dean heads out to play left — but Williams remains part in the lineup, a starter vs. the lefty. It's the second time on this trip that Williams, a lefthanded hitter, has made the start against a lefty pitcher and not been replaced for a platoon matchup.
Williams delivered the Cardinals' only two runs in their Friday loss to the Phillies with his first major-league home run. He followed that with three hits in the past three games. He hit the Cardinals' fifth home run of their victory Monday night against the Nationals.
The injury to Harrison Bader during spring training made what appeared likely become entirely inevitable: Williams was going to make the team.
The outfielder, who the Cardinals acquired from Tampa Bay, had impressed with how assertively he played during spring training and the authority with which he hit the ball. He was an example the team gave about how hitting the ball and hitting the ball often was going to catch their eye more than the raw results of a batting average in the Grapefruit League.
Williams struggled in the first series of the season with five strikeouts and he left Cincinnati without a hit.
But since he returned to lineup during the Cardinals' opening home stand, he's been rewarded for those metrics that the Cardinals cited. In the past 10 games, nine of which he has started, Williams has hit .296/.424/.519 in 33 plate appearances. He has almost as many RBIs (six) as he does strikeouts (seven) and more hits (eight) to go with six walks, too.
His experience against lefties is minimal, as he's only had five plate appearances, but he did line two hits.
Williams' stretch of production comes on the eve of Tyler O'Neill's return to the outfield, and what will add a wrinkle to manager Mike Shildt's decisions. O'Neill, a righthanded hitter who won the Gold Glove Award in 2020, is usually the team's left field. It's possible for him and Williams to flank center fielder Dylan Carlson, and that would keep leadoff hitter Tommy Edman at second base. It's possible against a righthanded pitcher for the Cardinals to seek playing time for Matt Carpenter at second, and that would be a revealing choice for Shildt. He could, as he's done in O'Neill's absence, slide Edman out to right and keep Williams in the lineup, at left.
Williams would be more than a lefthanded-hitting complement to O'Neill, he would be carving out playing time as an everyday player.
The best way always to get playing time is to already have it and make the most of it, as Williams will get a chance to do with Tuesday's lineup:
1. Tommy Edman, 2B
2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
3. Nolan Arenado, 3B
4. Yadier Molina, C
5. Dylan Carlson, CF
6. Paul DeJong, SS
7. Austin Dean, LF
8. Justin Williams, RF
9. Adam Wainwright, RHP
Two veteran pitchers who have made their careers around breaking balls are looking for their first wins of the season. Wainwright (curveball) is 0-2 with a 7.11 ERA, and Nationals lefty Corbin (slider) is 0-2 with a 21.32 ERA.
Shortly before the game, the Nationals announced that young superstar Juan Soto was placed on the injured list with shoulder inflammation.
That forced an overhaul of the top of the Nats' lineup.
1. Andrew Stevenson, RF
2. Josh Harrison, 2B
3. Trea Turner, SS
4. Josh Bell, 1B