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BenFred: Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson gets another chance to run away with center field

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Cardinals beat Cincinnati Reds 5-1 in of doubleheader

The Cardinals' Dylan Carlson (3) doubles off Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Mike Minor in the third inning of the first game of a doubleheader on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, at Busch Stadium. 

Dylan Carlson’s Saturday alarm sounded before daylight reached Des Moines.

The Cardinals outfielder jumped into his car and started the five-plus hour drive from Iowa to St. Louis so he could arrive in time to start the first half of a doubleheader against the Reds.

A bit bleary eyed in the Busch Stadium clubhouse upon arrival, Carlson revealed his trick to staying alert on the road following a short night’s sleep.

His rehab tour after a left thumb strain lasted about the same amount of time as his Friday night shuteye.

Carlson hit a double from both sides of the plate for Class-AAA Memphis on the road Friday night and was speeding back for St. Louis bright and early Saturday morning. During his drive, Carlson rolled down the windows on the highway and let fresh air rush in to combat drowsiness.

This Cardinals outfield could really benefit from an awakening.

Specifically one from Carlson.

Harrison Bader is a Yankee. Tyler O’Neill is on the injured list again, this time with another hamstring strain. Rookies Brendan Donovan and Alec Burleson are grabbing outfield starts along with veteran Corey Dickerson, and Juan Yepez hopes to rejoin that mix soon, but these players are all corner types. The Cardinals’ current center-field options other than Carlson are Lars Nootbaar, who has played less than 6% of his MLB innings in center, and recent call-up Ben DeLuzio, a speedy defense-first true center fielder, but one who offers little threat at the plate. O’Neill is expected back before the postseason, both he and manager Oli Marmol hoped Saturday, but counting on his health at this point is a gamble. This is his third injured-list stint this season and fifth in the past two.

“It’s an opportunity,” Marmol said about Carlson. “It really is. That’s the way it should be viewed.”

Some players get blocked after an injury and get forced to wait longer than they hoped because of how others perform while they’re down. Ask Yepez, who probably wanted to jump into Carlson’s car as Carlson parted ways with the Class-AAA affiliate. Carlson has been given a gift of the opposite. Another chance to take charge, a potential redo on the opportunity handed to him after the trade-deadline departure of Bader. He grabbed it, initially. Then it slipped from his grip.

Carlson remains this team’s most called-upon center fielder this season since Bader’s foot injury and departure, by a margin of more than 300 innings compared to the rest of the field.

A strong performance now could make him this club’s starting center fielder for the playoffs.

An unimpressive one could leave him in a limited role, and with a clouded future.

The Cardinals’ immediate focus is on wrapping up a clinch of their division; on pushing past that for the chance of securing a top-two National League spot and the first-round bye that comes with it; on doing everything possible to increase the likelihood of a potentially deep postseason push.

But potential is just that, which brings us back to Carlson, who is at the intersection where potential needs to pass the baton to production.

Some of Carlson’s critics forget he’s 23 years old. Some of Carlson’s backers, and I am one of them, must also understand he has more than 1,000 MLB at-bats beneath his belt along with not one but two tastes of a major league postseason.

This season pitchers have been beating Carlson with velocity up in the zone and breaking stuff down and away. The slide has intensified as the season has matured, as evidenced by a second-half batting line of .205/.295/.336. That’s a second-half OPS of .631 compared to a first-half OPS of .735. Carlson’s career OPS last season was an encouraging .780.

An outfield that was supposed to be set with O’Neill, Bader and Carlson is no more. Nootbaar is gaining stickiness by the game. Donovan can play anywhere, but he has to play somewhere, and one of the places he can play is in the outfield. Star prospect Jordan Walker looms, and he’s getting more outfield experience every day. Free agency will invite opportunities to spend on more proven outfield production, or at shortstop, which could steer more of Donovan and/or Tommy Edman’s playing time toward the outfield as a result. Spots are up for grabs now and later, and this club’s shots are now called by a manager who has no problem mixing and matching depending on the matchups, even in center.

Carlson caught a break when O’Neill’s hamstring bit again. Another opportunity has arrived, and this one came sooner than expected.

What his critics and supporters think he will make of it no longer matters much. What he does with it will impact how the Cardinals enter the postseason, how they fare in it and what this wide-open outfield looks like moving forward.

On little sleep, Carlson sped back into Marmol’s lineup for Saturday’s first game, cracked his 25th double of the season and soon scored on a Donovan single.

The opportunity is his again.

Now is no time to doze.

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss the Cardinals' chances -- real, or happy talk? -- of running down the Mets and Braves.

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