CHICAGO — At some point as he sprinted down the first-base line Thursday evening, the sensation Kolten Wong felt in his left hamstring caused him to slow down just enough, he said, to avoid a more traumatic injury.
The Cardinals want the same caution before he races back to play.
Two days after straining his hamstring, Wong rejoined the team at Wrigley Field on Saturday morning and was eager to see what light activity he could do that got him a step closer to a return. An MRI taken of his hamstring Friday in Chicago revealed a “moderate” tear, he said, and he hoped a follow-up exam with a team physician Saturday would clear his way toward testing his tolerance for pain. The team will have to first determine that he won’t do further harm to the hamstring by trying.
“Let’s do some running. Let’s do something. I feel so good,” Wong said. “Try to get my legs going, whatnot, and see when I can be used. Just a matter of the pain being there. Once that goes away then it’s all ready to go again.”
Manager Mike Shildt said there’s no timetable for Wong’s return, and that however he could help the team — starting, running, pinch-hitting — would involve the injured muscle. Asked if the strain would put Wong on the 10-day injured list if it happened any month other than September, Shildt said: “Potentially. I wouldn’t say, yes, definitely. Probably.”
Wong said the pain he feels in the leg is when he tries to get a foothold to push off — as he would making a play in the field or as he would with his left leg as he drew back to take a swing. The “good news,” as Shildt called it, was that Wong didn’t feel any of the tightness he did a year ago when he strained his hamstring. He was able to stretch, stand, and walk comfortably Saturday, and he credited what he learned last year about the injury with helping him avoid a more significant tear this season.
“I tried to push through it last year and I think I made it worse trying to finish out that run,” Wong said. “I’m not going to push it — for now. If my team needs me to be out there, I’m going to suck it up and do what I can.”
‘THE BENCH MAFIA’
The name comes from a time when Greg Garcia and Matt Adams were rooted there, waiting for the summons as a utility infielder or lefthanded slugger, respectively.
The revival is all Jose Martinez.
In a tweet earlier this week and in the dugout for several weeks, Martinez, the Cardinals’ pinch-hit sage, has started referring to the group of players who don’t start as “The Bench Mafia.” He got the name from Garcia and Adams, and has carried it into this season as a way to bond with Yairo Munoz, Rangel Ravelo, and, until recently, Matt Capenter. Membership in the mafia is easy.
“Not in the lineup? Go straight to the mafia,” Martinez said. “I’ve got a contract ready for them. Sign here. You’re part of us today.”
There is, however, more to the mafia than the snappy name and the inevitable tee shirts. Martinez and Carpenter have both used the grouping as a way to work with the young players, like Randy Arozarena, on how to prepare for pinch-hit duties. As Martinez said, “It’s a difficult job but it’s also the job they have for us, so we have to find a way to do it our best.” He talks to them about routine, about how to read the game, and then when to start getting loose in a batting cage (for pinch-hit duties) or a nearby hallway (for pinch-run duties).
When Carpenter came off the bench to hit the game-winning homer in Thursday’s game at Wrigley Field, Martinez later tweeted: “Bench mafia believe in (Matt Carpenter).”
Shildt considers himself an honorary member.
“I love the camaraderie with our team and the subset camaraderie in the fact that the bullpen is really tight, the guys on the bench are a cohesive unit,” Shildt said. “It’s so great to see them work together and talk and game plan. … (Jose) has taken a real lead. We do the best we can to read the tea leaves. Say, ‘Hey we’ve got a chance to hit for the pitcher coming up and it could be X and Y but it also could be Z.’ Guys are familiar with the game, see the game, and understand how the game works. They’re already ahead of what that looks like and ready for it and know (they) may be an option.”
With six steals this past week in the series against Washington, the Cardinals strengthened their lead in the National League with 111 stolen bases. It’s their first time with more than 100 steals since 2004 and it matches that year’s total, putting them only seven away from what Lou Brock did alone in 1974.
This is the 45th anniversary of the year Brock set the NL record for steals in a season, swiping 118.
“That’s crazy,” Harrison Bader said. “The game has changed. It’s changed, for sure.”
While steals have become an endangered species during the advance of analytics, the Cardinals have utilized them this season to exploit defensive shifts and grease an offense that has been wildly inconsistent. They’ve done so by shifting the pursuit of bulk steals — like the grand theft of Brock’s day — to steal proficiency. They want high returns, not smash-and-grabs.
In addition to his 118 steals, Brock led the league with 33 times caught. This year the Cardinals have been caught stealing 28 times and their success rate, at 79.9 percent, is the highest in franchise history since 1951, according to STATS, LLC.
“Success rate. That has to be good,” Bader said. “Singles turn into doubles. Walks turn into doubles. One through nine here anybody can steal a base. It’s been really good to us. Anything we can do to put pressure on the opposition with a steal threat — even if you might have the intention of going, just to put it in their heads. It’s become an important competitive edge.”