JUPITER, Fla. — After a rough start to spring training, it’s pretty much official. Cardinals rookie Kolten Wong has relaxed.
You did not need to see him homer, double and make a diving catch against the Mets on Tuesday afternoon to understand this, either.
All you needed to see was what he did during the Cardinals’ team stretch hours before the game. The feat was impressive enough to stop manager Mike Matheny in mid-sentence during his pregame media session.
From a standing position, with his teammates watching, Wong did a backflip.
"Did you guys see that," Matheny asked.
No, but Wong did another for those who missed the first one.
As impressive as this was athletically, the backflip told Matheny something else. Ten days into the exhibition season, Wong is feeling comfortable enough to be himself and have some fun, a message Matheny and at least one teammate, Adam Wainwright, have been giving the 23-year-old.
"It’s a great step for him," Matheny said.
"A couple of guys on the team doubted me so I had to prove them wrong," Wong said.
Don’t look for him to be copying Ozzie Smith, though. Wong says he can’t master the move that the Cardinals’ Hall of Famer made famous during his playing days.
"I try to do the Ozzie flip and I can’t," Wong said. "That cartwheel to the backflip I’ve tried. I can’t land straight. It’s the hardest thing."
Wong, who says he learned the backflip in college, showed it off in 2012 at the Futures Game and also for teammates in the minors and in St. Louis last year.
"I can almost do it on command," he said. "I’m that confident with it."
His confidence is growing on the baseball field, too. After an 0-for-10 start to spring, Wong has gone 5-for-10 with two walks and a hit by pitch. His no-doubt, two-run homer against the Mets came on the first pitch after he had been brushed back by lefty Jon Niese with a high fastball.
"You want to pay them back somehow," Wong said. "That was a cool thing to do. I don’t think I’ve ever done it before. It wasn’t intentional by him at all. Luckily for me, I was able to come back and get a hit."
While Wong says his timing at the plate has improved as he has gotten more at-bats, he admits that clearing his mind has been the key to his past few days.
"I put so much pressure on myself because I wanted to come in and be the guy instead of coming in and being who I am, playing the game and doing what I need to do to help the team win," he said. "I’m starting to enjoy the game, enjoy going out there. Once you start relaxing and enjoying the game, everything comes with it."
He’s still not going to be accused of being too relaxed. In the ninth inning, with the Cardinals down a run, Wong tried to bunt over Randal Grichuk from second to third but struck the ball too hard and Grichuk was thrown out (leading to a replay challenge that was upheld). The failed play left Wong with a lousy taste despite all he did right.
"That made me mad," he said. "My game is not going to be hitting home runs. My game is going to be moving guys over, doing the little things. When I can’t do that, basically the whole day is wasted."
"He wears stuff hard. He had a great day up to that point. He’s not going to let that go," Matheny said. "It’s just the kind of player he is. He’ll evolve over time."
There’s no doubt he has made significant strides since last Friday when he got his first three hits, also against the Mets, in Port St. Lucie. What is in doubt is whether the hits came first and then he loosened up or if he relaxed first and some success followed.
"Most guys it’s getting a little success," Matheny said. "That frees you up, is typical of what happens."
"The relaxing," countered Wong. "Talking with Mike helped a lot, knowing that I’m confident in myself that I can play at this level. I’m understanding that and buying into it, basically."
This, however, is certain: As long as Wong is hitting, he and the Cardinals will be happy.
— Oscar Taveras (hamstring) did not play for the third straight day after being pulled for a pinch-hitter last Saturday, and Matheny admitted the top prospect’s chances of making the Opening Day roster continue to dwindle.
"He needed to come in and have everything to go right for that to be a possibility," Matheny said.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.