Cardinals’ big investment in Peralta is paying off both at plate and in field

ST. LOUIS — If Stephen Drew batted right-handed, the Cardinals’ shortstop this season probably would not be Jhonny Peralta.

Because the Cardinals’ preference to land a right-handed-hitting shortstop was so strong, they opted for Peralta and his PED issue (he served a 50-game MLB suspension last season) over the lefty-hitting Drew who, besides giving them another lefty hitter, would have cost a valuable draft pick. They made their decision quickly and they paid big, $53 million for four years.

And today they can take a bow for being so bold.  

In what has been an up-and-down season for the Cardinals’ offense, Peralta has been a steadying force on both sides of the ball. He leads the Cardinals in home runs, has played better-than-advertised defense and has missed only three games. While the Cardinals have suffered offensive declines at a number of positions, shortstop is not one of them. Drew, meanwhile, was unable to find a job until late May, already has been traded and is hitting just .170.

Peralta not only has dwarfed the production of last year’s St. Louis shortstops (Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso), his numbers stack up favorably with any shortstop in the National League not named Tulowitzki. Peralta already has driven in more runs than Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki, who is out for the season. Peralta, 32, ranks top five among NL shortstops in hits, homers, RBI, batting average, OBP and slugging percentage.

One of Peralta’s biggest RBI as a Cardinal came Monday night in a 6-5 walk-off victory over the Reds. With one out in the 10th inning and runners on first and third, Peralta drove a fly over the head of left fielder Ryan Ludwick to bring in the winner.

"I know they’re trying to play for the double play. He has a pretty good sinker, but I tried to put the ball in the air," Peralta said. "It’s really important right now to win these games."

MORE ON THE CARDINALS

It was Peralta’s first walk-off hit since last June, when he hit a two-run homer for the Tigers to beat the Red Sox, 4-3.

Peralta already had figured in two Cardinals rallies. In the eighth, he doubled and hustled home with the tying run on a single to center by A.J. Pierzynski. "I see (Jose) Oquendo send me home, I say, ‘Wow, it’s going to be close,’" said Peralta, who was able to score easily when Billy Hamilton’s throw was off the mark.

In the first, Peralta drove in Matt Adams with the Cardinals’ second run in a two-out rally. With the pair of RBI, Peralta has moved into a tie with Adams for runner-up (55) on the team to Holliday (60).

With his next homer, No. 17, Peralta will break a tie with Edgar Renteria for the club’s single-season record at shortstop. He also has raised his average to .266, just one point off his career mark, and his OBP to .340. After spending his first 11 years in the AL, Peralta has adjusted without too much difficulty to a new league. After a three-hit night Monday, he has raised his batting average to a season high, though he still is a long way from matching last year’s career-best .303.

"The more that I play, I feel better and better," he said. "I know the pitchers more and feel better at home plate."

Defensively, Peralta has more or less lived up to his reputation for sure hands with limited range. He has made 10 errors — only two since the All-Star break — but has been able to get to more balls up the middle than one might think for a 215-pounder not known for his speed or quickness. Peralta isn’t particularly flashy in the field but shows a smoothness that is best seen when he seems to take just a bit too long to throw to first but still is able to beat the runner by just that much. It is a skill he says he has refined over time.

Still, Peralta’s hitting is the main reason the Cardinals wanted him. So far, the move is working out all right.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.