Baseball: Kolten Wong part of keystone combo that’s clicking for Cardinals

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo Hilo Oval Track is pictured last year, when it was only opened for a partial season. This year, a full season of dirt track racing is planned, with the next event scheduled for June 29.

Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong and shortstop Paul DeJong are in the midst of their third season together. In consideration of DeJong’s defensive improvement to go along with his high-powered offense and with Wong’s ability to get on base more and still play stellar defense, they are being talked about as potentially one of the best Cardinals’ keystone combinations.

“That’s definitely something that we shoot for,” said Wong. “But the thing we always tell each other is that if we’re hitting or not, we show up every day to play the game the right way. Base running, defense, whatever.

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“We’ve been living by that code since spring training. We kind of made a pact that if Paul slacks off, I’m going to get on him and if I slack off, he has all the right to get on me. We keep each other accountable.”

But, if we break it down to combinations that played at least three consecutive seasons together, the task becomes easier.

In that sense, and employing defense as a significant part of the equation although defensive skills are more easily analyzed statistically now, we’ll offer a top five Cardinals keystone combinations. With some of the infielders who were here a long time like Ozzie Smith, Red Schoendienst and Julian Javier, there is an overlap, so, for the top five, just one pairing involving any player will be listed, second basemen first.

1. Tom Herr-Ozzie Smith, 1982-88

In another World Series year of 1987, Herr had 83 RBIs on just two homers. The Wizard had a career-high .303 average with 43 steals.

But it was 1982, when the Cardinals won the World Series, that might have snared Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog’s attention the most. That was the year Keith Hernandez played first base and Ken Oberkfell third base, prompting Herzog to say this week that was “the best defensive infield in history.”

2. Red Schoendienst-Marty Marion, 1946-50

One of the longest-running second base-shortstop pairings for the Cardinals was late Hall of Famer Schoendienst and slick-fielding former Most Valuable Player Marion.

3. Fernando Vina- Edgar Renteria, 2000-03

The Cardinals got three straight playoff teams out of this pair from 2000-02 with Vina hitting .300 or over twice and Renteria stealing 60 bases overall and driving in 83 runs in 2002.

Renteria’s signature year was in 2003 when he was paired with both Vina and Bo Hart, when Vina was hurt. Renteria hit a career-high .330 with 100 RBIs.

4. Julian Javier-Dal Maxvill, 1962-70

Offense wasn’t the signature item here although Javier hit .281 with 14 homers in the World Series championship year of 1967. In part of this time frame, pitching so dominated the landscape that defense was paramount and no team had a better defensive combination up the middle than did the Cardinals. Plus, in 1968, another World Series year (the Cardinals lost to Detroit), Maxvill outhit 1967 MVP Orlando Cepeda .253 to .248.

5. Frankie Frisch- Charley Gelbert, 1929-32

Hall of Fame second baseman Frisch played with shortstop Gelbert for four seasons from 1929-32, including World Series appearances in 1930-31 (the Cardinals won the second one). Frisch hit .334, .346, .311 and .292 in that time stealing a total of 85 bases while Gelbert hit .262, .304, .289 and .264. Their best year together was 1930 when both hit over .300 and Frisch had 48 doubles and Gelbert 39, with Gelbert also having 11 triples.

Honorable mention would go to the following pairings: Jose Oquendo-Smith, 1988-91, Schoendienst-Solly Hemus, 1951-53, and Javier-Dick Groat, 1962-65.

Wong and DeJong have to put together several years of excellence to rank with these groups but they are on their way as elite two-way players, especially DeJong, who may be the Cardinals’ best player now at age 25.

“We talk about splitting the game up. When we’re at the plate, we’re trying to do damage. When we’re on the bases, we’re trying to take that extra base. And when we’re on defense, we’re trying to make great plays.”

In their first year together in 2017 — they both are on long-term contracts now — Wong and DeJong each hit .285 with DeJong rapping 25 homers and driving in 65 runs in just 417 at-bats. The two combined for 28 homers last year, 19 by DeJong, who missed seven weeks with a broken bone in his left hand.

DeJong had made just one error before the weekend and, while hitting .333 with two hitting streaks of at least 11 games, had 14 doubles on pace for 70. Wong’s on-base percentage was a lofty .385 and he ranked among the league leaders in steals with six.

Wong won the Fielding Bible defensive award at second base last year. DeJong largely has been under the radar, especially on defense but on offense, too.

“It’s still early,” DeJong said. “I want to be recognized as one of the best shortstops in the game. I know I have to prove that day in and day out and have a full season in the big leagues without being hurt.

“And I understand if I’m flying under the radar … that’s OK for right now.”

Wong said he had known that DeJong had the “potential” to be a strong defensive player.

“It’s a matter of practice and … really giving a damn,” said Wong. “You’ve got to really want to become a good defender.

“He’s constantly trying to get better every day. It’s never, ‘I’m satisfied with how I am today.’ Any given day, you’ll see him doing something with his arm care, working out in the gym, hitting, taking ground balls early.”

“You don’t hear much any more about defense down the middle. But you look at the Cardinals. They’ve got five potential Gold Glovers,” said Herzog, referring, to Wong and DeJong among them.

“The shortstop is swinging the bat and making all the plays,” Herzog said. “He’s got good range. He doesn’t make things look spectacular. He makes everything look smooth. He’s got pop in that bat and he’s one of the few guys since coming up that’s cut down on his strikeouts.”

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In Herzog’s mind, it’s full speed ahead for DeJong — and the Cardinals in the National League Central Division race.

“I look for them to win that thing going away,” Herzog said.

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