JUPITER, Fla.-- To say that things went poorly for Kolten Wong in his first exposure to the major leagues would be quite the understatement.
Wong, one of the finest prospects in an overstuffed Cardinals farm system, posted an OPS+ of just 3 during his 62 plate appearances with St. Louis during the 2013 regular season. To put that in perspective, only three other hitters with 50 plate appearances in 2013 had a lower OPS+ -- and 20 pitchers topped Wong's OPS+ mark last year as well.
Then, to make matters worse, Wong entered the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series as a pinch-runner. One out later, with the tying run at the plate in the form of Carlos Beltran, he'd been picked off to end the game.
It was the kind of first impression that can define careers and sour teams on a player. And to make matters worse, Wong not only had to figure out how to move past this struggle, he needed to do so without any personal precedent.
"It humbled me, as a person and as a player," Wong told me as we chatted in front of his locker Sunday morning. "Throughout my career, I've been coming up and doing well at every stop I had. So to come up there, and struggle as much as I did, it was very humbling. But it allowed me to light a new fire in me, and push through."
Wong isn't kidding. He torched high school competition at Kamehameha High School in Hawaii, then dominated at the University of Hawaii. The Cardinals took him in the first round of the 2011 draft, and he immediately hit in full-season ball with Quad City, made an easy transition to Double-A Springfield and saw his numbers actually jump when he played for Triple-A Memphis.
And Then: that difficult three months. He struggled for the first time ever, while playing irregularly for the first time ever as well, complicating his ability to figure out his problems at the plate.
As Wong explained, he had a two-pronged approach to overcoming it: His swing work, and his faith and support network.
"Me being a religious person that I am, this is God testing me, to see if I believe in him," Wong said. "And I wanted to make sure -- it was a process, but not only through baseball. It was a process through believing in him, and he has my path set out. And if I continue to work hard, whatever happens, happens. It's in his hands."
That's not to say coming to terms with that was easy for Wong, especially after the World Series gaffe.
"That was the biggest test for me," Wong said of the time that followed his pickoff. I'll never forget Wong trying gamely to answer reporter questions in that St. Louis locker room, tears streaming down his face. "As soon as it happened, I was really down on myself, in fact wondering what I did wrong. Why did this happen to me?
"But I talked to my parents. My mom was super helpful, and just telling me, 'It happens to everyone. Everyone's gonna screw up once in their life. More than once, actually.' What matters is how you come back from it, learn from it."
So Wong took a month off to clear his mind, doing nothing but lift. Then he got to work, unfortunately needing also to deal with the December passing of his mother. He had some ideas about what went wrong in his first major league stop, and how to fix it.
"Everything -- cage work, on the field. That's the beautiful thing about living in Hawaii. You can practice on the field year-round," Wong said. "So it's awesome being there.
"The main thing was to keep my swing as short as possible. Toward the end of the season, I could feel my swing getting longer and longer. I think that was the main reason I struggled as long as I did. So as soon as I identified the problem, I wanted to make sure I kept it short. Toward the end, my load started getting a lot bigger. When your load gets bigger, you have to compensate by trying to get around on things. So I just tried shortening my load a lot, and quieting my feet, staying really quiet, so I can see the ball."
The results didn't come right away, with Wong going hitless in his first ten spring at-bats. But he's been remarkable since, and his overall spring numbers, for what they're worth, are up to a slash line of .372/.426/.675 entering Monday's game. Put another way, after those first ten at-bats, Wong batted .500 in his next 30, then he added a single in the first inning Sunday.
His manager, Mike Matheny, thinks that success has built upon itself.
"I think he had a little bit of success, couple balls finding gaps and holes," Matheny said during his Sunday morning media availability along the first base line. "And I think that gave him the freedom to be himself. So it's nice to see that.
"He had to work through the adversity. It's not going to be his last time. But we see him making strides forward offensively."
Wong's bat helped get him to the big leagues so quickly, but the fact that he's such a polished product defensively at second base helped ensure his path remained clear in St. Louis. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak traded David Freese to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, which will improve the team's outfield defense. But it should also help the infield, with Matt Carpenter moving to his natural position at third, and allowing Wong to slot in at second.
Wong looms as quite the obstacle at second base. He's only 5'9", but the weightlifting helps him to maximize that listed weight of 185 pounds. As 6'2", 205-pound Daniel Murphy of the Mets put it after colliding with Wong at second base this spring: "I ran into a truck." It was Murphy who moved, not Wong, when the two collided.
"I love being at second base, because you're always in the action," Wong said. "You're either turning the double play, you're doing something, you're covering first base yourself. You're always in the play. Balls to the outfield, you're covering. I don't have quite the arm strength for shortstop, but second base, I can do it pretty well."
His skills out there have drawn the notice of Matheny as well. He hasn't announced his Opening Day lineup yet, but it's pretty clear who his second baseman will be, especially since veteran alternative Mark Ellis has been slowed by injury this spring.
"Defensively, he's doing a nice job," Matheny said of Wong. "He's really worked hard. He had a game plan going in with Jose Oquendo, and they've accomplished a lot of things they wanted to accomplish."
So really, the story of Wong appears to be a matter of faith on two fronts. The Cardinals, on the heels of that difficult fall, made Wong a centerpiece, not a scapegoat. And they communicated that to Wong, which reinforced his belief that he'd get another opportunity to undo his first impression.
"Once you heard about their intentions to move [Carpenter] to third, you definitely have in mind that they're opening a spot for someone to take advantage," Wong said. "And then, to hear the confidence they had in me to come in and try to win this job really did light a fire under me to prove them right, that they'll give me a chance, and it'll work out. Hopefully, it does."