Taveras, Wong and Martinez rock while Holliday continues to roll

The Cardinals' youth take center stage in a split-squad exhibition against the Mets, and the kids -- notably Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong and Carlos Martinez -- put on quite a show.

Good news, Cardinals fans. Oscar Taveras says his surgically repaired right ankle feels fine and he's ready make a run at the big-league roster.

Jeff Roberson / AP

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Matt Holliday banged out three hits and improved his batting average to .889 but his torrid hitting was overshadowed Friday for a reason other than "it's only the first week of spring training."

On a sunny and windy afternoon, the Cardinals' youth took center stage in a split-squad exhibition, and the kids -- notably Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong and Carlos Martinez -- put on quite a show against the Mets at Tradition Field.

Start with the prized prospect. In his long-awaited first at-bat of the spring, Taveras wasted little time showing what the fuss is about. On an 0-2 count, the 21-year-old outfielder lined a double over the head of Mets right fielder Curtis Granderson. Taveras skied out to center and, trying to pull an outside delivery, grounded to second in his other two plate appearances.

Taveras's debut had been delayed because the club believed he has been favoring his left ankle to protect his surgically repaired right ankle. Taveras showed no hesitation breaking from the box and was able to make second easily. If he had any thoughts about going for a triple, third-base coach Jose Oquendo ended them in a hurry.

"He was going to second base. That's it," said Oquendo, who served as Taveras' translator in a postgame interview and didn't even bother to ask the question posed about the possibility of trying for third.

Playing right field, Taveras had a double go over his head that, in a calmer wind, he might have been able to make a play on. His break wasn't the best, though, and he settled for fielding the ball cleanly as it bounced off the fence and returning it to the infield.

"He came up, planted hard, made a nice strong throw in," manager Mike Matheny said. "(It) was one of those days. When the ball goes in the air, it could be a zoo. Their instincts are telling them they should be here and the ball ends up there. He did a good job."

Most important, Taveras said afterward his right ankle feels fine and he believes enough spring training remains for him to still make a run at the big-league roster.

"He says this is his first game but he still has plenty of time to show that he can get ready to play," Oquendo translated. "Take one step at a time. Come back and work hard tomorrow. If he plays, he plays. If not, he'll be ready to go."

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Wong, the 23-year-old Hawaiian considered the leading candidate to start at second base, is starting to look more ready. Not only did Wong get his first three hits of the spring -- one an RBI ground-rule double to deep left-center that went against the wind -- he also stole a base and made two strong defensive plays. After an 0-for-10 start had left him frustrated enough that Matheny had to remind him there's nothing wrong with having some fun, his hitting made him happiest.

"It's that weight off my chest," Wong said. "Like all right, I knew it was coming. It's about time it actually happened."

Said Matheny, "I want to make sure he's not relaxing because he got three hits. I want him relaxing because that's how you have to play this game. You have to play with an intensity but a trust in yourself that things at times aren't going the way you want them to. When those hits don't come, I want to see extra life."

Wong says not only is he feeling more relaxed but the timing with his leg kick is nearing where it needs to be.

"I've been getting my foot down a little earlier, which has allowed me to see the ball a lot better," he said.

Based on the results, Mets' hitters weren't seeing the ball too well against Martinez. Reaching 97 mph on the speed gun, the 22-year-old right-hander did nothing to hurt his chances in the race for the fifth spot in the rotation. In his second spring start, he gave up a single and walked one in a scoreless, 44-pitch three-inning outing.

"He had a good outing again," Matheny said. "Just looked electric."

The youngsters not only are showing what they can do on the field, they are saying what they're supposed to off of it. Through translator Tony Cruz, Martinez dodged a question with a veteran's ease about his desire to make the rotation.

"He's just focusing on going out there and doing what he can do, working hard, and hopefully he can stay in the rotation," catcher Tony Cruz interpreted.

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The veteran Holliday, meanwhile, continues to hit like he's trying to win a spot in the lineup. He drove in two runs on line-drive singles and could have had a third RBI except Wong had to return to second after Holliday smashed a shot that nailed umpire Chris Conroy, who was standing in the infield between first and second.

Because the umpire was stationed in front of the Mets' infielders, the play was ruled dead when it hit him and Holliday was awarded a single. If Conroy had been stationed behind the infielders, the ball would have been live and Wong would have been free to try to score.

"I need to save some," said Holliday, who has nothing to prove in spring training. This was a game when three of his young teammates that do, however, all took significant strides in the right direction.

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

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