Taveras’ big-league debut: So that’s what all the fuss is about
ST. LOUIS — Oscar Taveras needed only one swing in his major-league debut to show what all the fuss is about.
In the fifth inning of a scoreless game, he swung and the ball jumped, the crowd rose and the Cardinals led 1-0. Let the record show that the first hit of Taveras’ big-league career was a 418-foot home run that banged off the back wall of the Cardinals’ bullpen at Busch Stadium.
"Everybody knows it’s gone," Taveras said with a grin.
What kind of pitch did you hit?
"Slider in the middle," he said. "A good pitch."
A good pitch for you, anyway.
"Yeah," he said, laughing. "It was awesome for me."
The homer was huge for a reason other than showing the Cardinals’ prized prospect at least has the swing that could live up to all the hype that has followed him pretty much since he signed as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic. The blast proved to be the winning run in a 2-0 victory over the Giants that ended the Cardinals’ three-game losing streak.
"I’d say that was a huge boost for us," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "What a great day for him, one I’m sure he’ll never forget. Neither will we. It couldn’t have been at a better time."
Matheny sounded as impressed as the sellout crowd that greeted Taveras with a big ovation for his first at-bat.
"To come out and do what he did I think validates the kind of talent he is and hopefully the kind of mental toughness he has to have to be able to put a lot of the distractions aside," Matheny said. "All the hype is a distraction, but he obviously is the kind of player we’ve all been talking about."
On his way around the bases, Taveras kept his head down and acted like he’d made this trip before, though you could see he was trying to suppress a grin.
"Yeah, even when he came across, he was still kind of holding back," Matheny said. "He let it loose once he got in the dugout."
His teammates welcomed him with the customary handshake line and then nudged him out of the dugout for a curtain call.
"You could see he was beaming after that," said Matheny, calling the moment "kind of mind boggling."
He added, "You take all the things into consideration, his first day, where we were in that game, we needed somebody to step up and he did it."
Put into the six-hole and right field for his first game, Taveras’ other two at-bats weren’t as productive. He popped up to left in his first at-bat and struck out in the seventh on a fastball that was outside and high. But on a day when the Cardinals managed only three other hits, nobody cared about his outs.
"That kid is a stud," said 22-year-old winning pitcher Michael Wacha of his 21-year-old teammate. "Everybody knows what he is capable of. That was a big-time home run for us. It gives us a little extra energy, for sure."
By 6 p.m., Taveras was about the only player left in the clubhouse and he was ready to relax. It still was less than 24 hours since he found out he would be coming to the majors. He was waiting out a rain delay Friday night in Memphis when Redbirds manager Pop Warner called him in and told him he was removing him from the lineup.
"I said, ‘Why?’" Taveras said. "He said, ‘You are going to the big leagues.’ I say, ‘Wow.’ I be happy."
After reaching town late Friday night, Taveras arrived at Busch Stadium on Saturday morning with his pal and fellow phenom Carlos Martinez. Taveras located his locker (the one that had been occupied by Shane Robinson) in the Cardinals’ clubhouse and took a stroll around his new home, soon making his way into the players’ lunchroom crowded with new teammates. He made the rounds shaking hands and a little later, was called into his manager’s office for a welcome message.
"I brought him in, congratulated him and told him what a great job he’s done up to this point," Matheny said. "I set a level of expectations — some of them are simple rules about how we expect to handle ourselves — and after that, (I told him to) let me know how I can help."
Standing at his locker before the game, his No. 18 jersey hanging to his right, Taveras conducted his first media scrum in English. Judging from how he answered, he didn’t fully understand some of the questions, but he didn’t need to say anything for you to know he grasped the situation. You could tell from his smile how happy he was to be here.
Asked if he would be nervous, he replied, "I’ll be OK." Then as soon as he said it, it was like he suddenly realized that nerves might be an issue.
"Well, I don’t know yet," he said. "So maybe yeah, maybe no. I will go out there and play the same. It’s the same game. There’s a lot more fans here than in Memphis. … I’ll be OK."
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.