BREAK­OUT YEAR

Wong: ‘This isn’t luck. I’ve been put­tng in the work ev­ery sin­gle day’

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - SPORTS - By GREG BATES

MIL­WAU­KEE — Just be­fore en­ter­ing the vis­it­ing team club­house on Tues­day af­ter­noon, Kolten Wong gives the door at­ten­dant a fist bump.

It’s three hours be­fore the St. Louis Car­di­nals play the Mil­wau­kee Brewers, and Wong is cool and calm. Laid back, like a true Hawai­ian.

He heads to his locker where the No. 16 name­plate hangs. He takes a seat. His first or­der of busi­ness is to string his cleats. The Car­di­nals sec­ond base­man is metic­u­lous in his pregame prepa­ra­tion.

As the Car­di­nals’ bat­ting prac­tice ap­proaches, Wong is ready to step to the plate. He’s con­fi­dent. In past years, he might not have been so pos­i­tive to face live pitch­ing. How­ever, this is a new Wong.

En­ter­ing his fifth season in the big leagues, Wong had just a .248 ca­reer bat­ting av­er­age. But the 26-yearold has en­joyed a break­out year. Wong in­creased his av­er­age to a season-high .315 last week­end, and he heads to a se­ries at San Fran­cisco hitting .305 with a .388 on-base per­cent­age.

The Hilo na­tive hit just .240 last season, so the turn­around has been dras­tic.

“Just un­der­stand­ing how peo­ple are fi­nally pitch­ing me. Un­der­stand­ing the game,” said Wong, sit­ting in the vis­it­ing team’s dugout at Miller Park. “It’s funny, man. I lit­er­ally have no ex­pla­na­tion of why I’m play­ing the way I am. All I know is it’s not a fluke. The thing is you put in so much work. For me, this is my fourth (full) year of big leagues al­ready, and the past three years have ba­si­cally been a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Ev­ery sin­gle year, it’s been some­thing dif­fer­ent.

“To fi­nally see this full year and see how ev­ery­thing kind of came full cir­cle to see ev­ery­thing com­ing to­gether, it just goes to show that if you put in hard work, even­tu­ally things will work their way out.”

Wong came into Tues­day’s game rid­ing a 10-game hitting streak – regis­ter­ing a .390 clip dur­ing that stretch — and col­lect­ing hits in 18 of 19 games. He fol­lowed that up by go­ing 0-for-9 in a two-game set with the Brewers, but there’as no doubt he’s see­ing the ball well.

“I’ve ob­vi­ously ma­tured a lot as a player,” said Wong, who is hitting .353 at Busch Sta­dium this season. “Last year def­i­nitely helped me with that. I’ve learned a lot about my­self, I think, and that brings me to a point where I’m at right now. I’ve been telling peo­ple this the whole

year, this isn’t a fluke what I’m do­ing. This isn’t luck. I’ve been putting in the work ev­ery sin­gle day. I’ve been do­ing the things I’ve got to do ev­ery sin­gle day to get to this point.”

Team­mates no­tice

Wong’s team­mates have cer­tainly seen his rise at the plate over the last cou­ple of months.

“I look at the whole year, he’s been con­sis­tent all year, re­ally from open­ing day un­til now,” Car­di­nals in­fielder Greg Gar­cia said. “He’s putting the bat on the ball; he’s tak­ing his walks. Now you’ve seen he’s hit a cou­ple home runs, so he’s get­ting that back, too. He’s a com­plete player and a com­plete hit­ter.”

Rookie short­stop Paul DeJong has en­joyed watch­ing Wong be pro­duc­tive at the plate.

“Kolten, he’s just tak­ing good at-bats,” DeJong said. “I think he’s fi­nally healthy and he’s in there ev­ery day and he’s feel­ing bet­ter. He’s just do­ing his thing. He gets on base. He hits the ball hard. And he’s a good baserun­ner. He’s just play­ing re­ally well.”

To be­come a .300 hit­ter, Wong has been work­ing dili­gently with hitting coach John Mabry. He also stud­ies each pitcher he’s go­ing to face and de­tects their ten­den­cies and has also be­come very con­scious of strike zone recog­ni­tion.

“Re­ally un­der­stand­ing that if I make the pitcher work and I don’t go up there su­per ag­gres­sive, even­tu­ally I’m go­ing to get a pitch I know I’m go­ing to hit,” Wong said. “That’s been my thing the whole year. I’m not re­ally wor­ried about get­ting to two strikes. I’m just wor­ried about get­ting a pitch that I know I can drive and hit the ball hard.”

After hitting 12 home runs in 2014 and 11 the fol­low­ing season, Wong dipped down to five last season. This year, Wong has hit just four long balls, three of which have come in the last three weeks.

Wong re­al­ized that if he’s go­ing to be a suc­cess­ful big league hit­ter, smash­ing home runs isn’t his forte. He has 24 dou­bles on the year, four shy of his ca­reer high for a season, and man­ager Mike Ma­theny has started slot­ting him into the Nos. 5 and 6 slots in the or­der.

“He ob­vi­ously has the abil­ity to hit the ball out of the ball­park,” Gar­cia said. “But I think he knows he’s more of an ef­fec­tive hit­ter by hitting line drives and maybe ton­ing his swing down a little bit to try to not hit so many home runs and know the home runs are go­ing to come by just bar­rel­ing up the ball.”

Tack­ling ad­ver­sity

This season hasn’t all pos­i­tive for Wong. He ended up on the dis­abled list twice and missed 37 of 43 games from the end of May un­til mid-July. Wong suf­fered a left el­bow in­jury and re­turned for six games be­fore go­ing down with a right tri­ceps strain. He was hitting .278 when he suf­fered his first in­jury and went 9-for-20 when he came back briefly. To get in­jured again was dif­fi­cult. “Es­pe­cially the season I was hav­ing up un­til those in­juries was re­ally good,” Wong said. “I was get­ting to that .300 point be­fore those in­juries and the in­juries came and I had to go through a month or so of be­ing on and off the DL. After that, I knew what I was do­ing was work­ing and it wasn’t a fluke, and just kept that mind­set and knew that if I stayed pos­i­tive things were go­ing to con­tinue to go on this route.”

Along with his strong season at the plate, Wong has a .978 field­ing per­cent­age and has com­mit­ted nine er­rors.

Wong al­ways banked on his de­fense as a ma­jor lea­guer while try­ing to pick up his of­fen­sive num­bers. Now, he feels as though he’s a well-rounded player, though he still would like to get a bet­ter read of the ball off the bat, to im­prove his range.

“I take my de­fense just as pride­ful or even more than my of­fense,” Wong said. “I came up known as a de­fen­sive guy and I’ve kind of pride my­self on that. When I first got drafted, peo­ple re­ally didn’t think I could play de­fense at all. That kind of left a chip on my shoul­der. With of­fense, I al­ways knew I could hit. It just kind of took a little bit to fig­ure that out as well.”

Said DeJong: “I think it’s just a snow­ball ef­fect – his de­fense help­ing his of­fense, of­fense help­ing his de­fense.”

Prior to the 2016 season, Wong signed a five-year con­tract ex­ten­sion through 2020 worth $25.5 mil­lion and he he­lieves his season thus far is val­i­da­tion.

“This is the player the Car­di­nals saw when they signed him to that ex­ten­sion,” Gar­cia said. “I’ve watched him play since he was in col­lege, so we knew the kind of tal­ent that he has. He’s a Gold Glove-cal­iber sec­ond base­man and can run the bases well, hits. He’s just a great team­mate, great player.”

Hawaii pride

Last Fe­bru­ary, the Univer­sity of Hawaii re­tired Wong’s No. 14 jersey. Wong couldn’t be at the re­tire­ment cer­e­mony since he didn’t get to Hawaii last off­sea­son, but he’s plan­ning to get back home this off­sea­son.

“There’s only three num­bers ever re­tired at UH, never would have thought mine would be one,” Wong said. “But def­i­nitely an honor for me. A priv­i­lege be­ing a born and raised (a) Hawaii kid. Al­ways idol­iz­ing play­ing at Hawaii one day, and not ever think­ing this would hap­pen. It’s def­i­nitely an honor, su­per stoked about it. I can’t wait to go back and see my num­ber hang­ing up. It’s go­ing to be a re­ally cool and touch­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for me.”

He’s well aware he’s be­come a trail­blazer for Big Is­land base­ball play­ers, and he not only hopes to see mi­nor lea­guers such as his brother, Kean, and Kodi Medeiros in the ma­jors soon, he wants to help all Hawai­ian ath­letes achieve their goals.

“There are a lot of guys be­fore me that kind of trail­blazed the way for me, so I’m just kind of fol­low­ing in their path,” Wong said. “I’m try­ing to do what I can to help these kids in Hawaii, show­ing them this is def­i­nitely an op­tion to go down this route and you can chase your dreams from here. It’s been amaz­ing, man. The sport in Hawaii, ev­ery­body wants to come watch me play. It’s so cool to know that.

“I love go­ing back to see the peo­ple and in­ter­act with the kids and let them know that I haven’t changed. I’m still the kid from Hawaii, born and raised. Still love be­ing back there, and I’m not go­ing to be any­thing dif­fer­ent than who I am.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

En­ter­ing his fifth season, St. Louis’ Kolten Wong had just a .248 ca­reer bat­ting av­er­age. But after a hot streak, the 26-year-old sec­ond base­man is hitting .305 with a .388 on-base per­cent­age.

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