Kolten Wong showed everything that makes him a dangerous leadoff hitter in one inning Sunday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium.
Wong started the sixth by taking two pitches and falling behind 1-2 before he lined a single to right to break a streak of 14 straight Cardinals retired by Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura. Then Wong got Ventura’s attention at first base, drawing multiple pickoff throws that may have contributed to the changeup up in the strike zone that Matt Carpenter turned on for a two-run home run.
"Leadoff isn’t an easy place to hit at," Wong says. "But it’s all about learning and understanding how to approach leadoff and just buying into it."
He couldn’t find the right approach in his first two games at the top of the order in Cleveland, which included Corey Kluber’s 18-strikeout gem. Wong went 0 for 9 with four strikeouts, snapping an eight-game hit streak during which he batted 15 for 29 (.517) with two home runs and 10 RBIs.
Manager Mike Matheny moved Wong down to the more familiar sixth or seventh spot in the order for four games before giving him another shot at leading off in the series opener at New York. The results barely improved as he went 1 for 6 with three strikeouts.
But two games later, Wong went 3 for 5 when he returned to the No. 1 spot, where he’s been ever since. He capped off a four-game stretch of hitting 8 for 19 (.421) with three walks by crushing the ninth pitch he saw from Royals reliever Joe Blanton to the wall over center fielder Lorenzo Cain’s head for a ninth-inning double.
"That last one, I think, was very indicative of the kind of player that he can be," Matheny says. "He fights off a lot of balls that are probably out of the strike zone, low balls that are almost in the dirt and he’s fouling off, fouling off, then he gets a ball to drive."
Carpenter called it as good of an at-bat as he’s ever seen from Wong, the 24-year-old who made his debut in August 2013 and hasn’t gone back to the minors since May 2014. That’s high praise from Carpenter, who knows a thing or two about batting leadoff.
Carpenter proved to be one of the best leadoff hitters in the National League a year ago, and he hit .373 with 15 runs in 18 games at the top of the order this season. But Matheny likes Carpenter’s power better in the No. 2 hole, and the third baseman doesn’t mind batting behind Wong.
"He’s doing a great job and I think we’re a better offense with him hitting leadoff and me hitting in the second spot," Carpenter says. "I think he just needed to develop as a hitter and we’re seeing what he’s been able to become: a guy that can have tough at-bats."
Wong never struck out in Kansas City, where he extended his hitting streak to eight games. The leadoff spot appears to be his for now, though Matheny isn’t the type of manager to commit to anything long-term and center fielder Jon Jay could challenge for the spot when he returns from injury.
General manager John Mozeliak says that won’t happen until at least Friday; the Cardinals are sending Jay, who was suffering from wrist tendinitis related to his offseason surgery, to Single A Peoria for a rehab stint Tuesday.
Matheny said earlier this season Wong’s aggressiveness at the plate keeps him from being a prototypical leadoff hitter, though that matters less than getting on base. When he does that, Wong’s speed can create havoc and fluster opposing pitchers.
"That’s my game plan," Wong says. "I want people to realize that I’m on first base and kind of take their attention off the hitter so they can make a mistake."
Lately, he’s been getting plenty of opportunities.