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BenFred: Memphis not in Luke Voit's plans for next season

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Marlins Cardinals Baseball

St. Louis Cardinals' Luke Voit is congratulated by teammates after hitting a solo home run during the second inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Luke Voit pulled his silver, jacked-up Chevy truck into the parking lot, dropped the rumbling engine into reverse and backed into a parking spot out front of the Brentwood hitting academy that serves as his offseason baseball laboratory.

“Dang, Meat,” razzed Spencer Thomson as the 26-year-old Cardinals first baseman and pinch-hitter walked inside.

You better go way back with a 6-foot-3 major leaguer to risk calling him a meathead, even in an endearing way, but that’s the kind of familiarity found here. Thomson helped coach Voit’s eighth-grade baseball team. Twelve years later, Voit’s bobblehead sits at the front desk, where a fan recently left behind a rookie card he hoped Voit would sign.

“I’m living my dream,” Voit said Wednesday afternoon.

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The Wildwood native, Lafayette alum and 22nd round draft pick out of Missouri State captured the heart of Cardinal Nation for a stretch last season. He arrived in late June, after nearly 1,700 at-bats in the minors, three labrum tears and a shredded thumb. He shook that day as he attempted to explain what it meant to play for his favorite team. He immediately won over fans with his philosophy, which was to hit “bombs and doubles.”

Former Cardinals hero and local legend David Freese sent him a congratulatory note from the Pirates clubhouse before his first game. He picked Nelly’s “Country Grammar” for his walk-up song, and smiled after a fastball drilled him in the back the first time he stepped into the box at Busch.

The plunk doubled as a pinch. Voit didn’t wake up. Living the dream.

And life has become even sweeter since.

Last month he got engaged to his girlfriend, Victoria Rigman. They bought a house. And yes, the truck is new.

“I’m going broke already,” Voit joked. “No, it’s been good, man. Life is happy. You finally get to the big leagues, and I’m not saying you make a lot of money, but I’ve never really had that with the minor leagues. I didn’t have a big signing bonus. I’ve just been waiting, and working my butt off to get up there.”

Now he must bust his tail to stay. If things go according to Voit’s plan, his story is just beginning.

“Memphis, I hope it’s not in my plans,” Voit said. “I’m going to do everything in my power to keep myself from going there, and I think the Cardinals know that’s how I think. I don’t want that to come across as arrogant. But I want to play. I’ve always wanted to start. I’m not saying I can’t pinch-hit for another 15 years, but obviously, you want to start.”

It was here last offseason where Voit programmed a HitTrax batting simulator to show Busch’s dimensions. He focused on hitting the bottom half of baseballs with every bit of his power.

It’s time for the next step.

As every Cardinal waits to find out what moves the front office will make, Voit is focused on what he can control. He hopes to evolve his game to the point that it’s worthy of a roster spot, maybe more. He wants to diversify.

His workouts have cut nine pounds from his frame while preserving his strength. He has a 235-pound target in mind, and a position experiment that might help his chances of escaping a first-base logjam. Voit played some left field at Class AA in 2016. Sure, he fibbed to then Springfield manager Dann Bilardello about having high school experience at the position in order to get the opportunity. But he survived. He’s planning on incorporating some drop steps and fly-ball reads into upcoming workouts, because why not?

He knows his bat will ultimately determine his major league fate.

Between Memphis and St. Louis last season he totaled 32 doubles and 17 home runs. Those 49 “bombs and doubles” for 2017 were a career-high, and he did it in fewer at-bats than he had the past two seasons.

But after Voit knocked six doubles, three homers and slugged .580 through his first 50 major-league at-bats, he cooled. Jose Martinez didn’t. Voit went back to Memphis for a stint.

“I got my chance,” Voit said. “Then I kind of struggled a little bit. That’s baseball. There’s always going to be a guy waiting in line.”

He averaged .246 with a .306 on-base percentage and a .430 slugging percentage. He struck out too much (25 percent) and didn’t walk nearly enough (5.6 percent). But he did show promise as a pinch-hitter, hitting .303 and slugging .455 in 33 at-bats.

There’s a new motto for his offseason swing work. Bombs. Doubles. And walks.

“It’s a matter of controlling your strike zone, staying within yourself,” Voit said. “When I first started pinch-hitting, I was trying to hit a home run every time. I had lost my spot, so I wanted to get it back. But you can’t be like that. You will never have success like that. If you do the right thing, home runs will fall into place.”

Voit, who has since framed his handwritten note from Freese, understands the power of his story.

His hometown loves its baseball players, especially homegrown ones.

Take Tanner, for example. He’s the kid who lives down the street from Voit’s new house, the one who started ringing Voit’s doorbell after he found out the Cardinal from St. Louis was new to the neighborhood.

“Every day, he’s playing catch in the front yard with his dad,” Voit said. “That’s kind of what I was like.”

Living the dream. Can he extend it?

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