Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Red, Red Redemption: Kolten Kaha Wong and the Beautiful, Ceaseless Tomorrow

When Matt Duffy slid over home plate with two outs in the ninth, the Cardinals could feel it slipping away. They had already lost game one. Heading to San Francisco carrying the threat of being swept was a very real possibility. A wild pitch had scored the pinch-runner Duffy from second base. Yadier Molina, St. Louis's hall-of-fame catcher, had left the game with an oblique injury. Trevor Rosenthal skipped a ninety-nine miles per hour fastball in front of home plate. Perhaps Molina stops it and the pitch only loads the bases. Backup catcher Tony Cruz had difficulty locating the errant pitch. By the time he was able to locate the ball, Duffy was approaching home. The game was tied. Kolten Wong was to lead off the home half of the ninth inning. To this point, Wong's short career had been defined by being picked-off at first base to end game four of last year's World Series. On Sunday night, two days removed from his twenty-fourth birthday, Wong stepped into the box and re-wrote his own story.

Baseball is cruel in the most perfect of ways. In the case of Kolten Wong, his misstep on the basepath was the final out in a World Series game. Wong, a rookie in 2014, played in thirty-nine games the season before, including seven in the postseason. His time was limited to pinch situations, but October seasoning can do wonders for a young player. A moment such as the one in question can bury a player. The long winter months can be ripe with time to think alone, and surely in his mind, he's replayed that moment time and time again. When the 2014 season began, Wong had moved into the starting second baseman role. He had a fruitful rookie campaign, amassing one hundred hits in 402 official at-bats. Twelve home runs wasn't bad either, especially for a rookie middle infielder. Wong began to establish his place as a long-term solution at second. When the heated sprint of September turned to the gut-check drama of October, the memory of last season quickly came flooding back. Until the bottom of the ninth in game two of the 2014 National League Championship Series, Wong was still likely best known for his baserunning gaffe. Then, as baseball so often does, he flipped his own legend on its head with one swing.

Sergio Romo was unstoppable two years ago. He had taken over the closer role in San Francisco from the enigmatic and bizarre Brian Wilson, who saw a mild decline in his closeout ability. Romo caught triple-crown winner Miguel Cabrera looking to end the World Series. Cabrera was the best pure hitter on the planet, and Romo had the ability to outwit him. Two years can make quite the difference. 2014 was witness to Romo's worst season statistically. In the postseason, he shut down the Nationals, only allowing two hits against eleven batters with no runs allowed. It appeared as if he was able to turn it on in October. In game two Sunday Night, Romo was called on to hold the game and give his Giants a shot at stealing a win in extra innings. He faced Kolten Wong first, and inevitably last in that inning. With one strike, Romo laced an eighty-four miles per hour changeup over the plate. As Wong made contact, both parties involved could feel the outcome instantly.

The ball sliced through the low, midwestern atmosphere. A line drive shot to right field. For a moment, it looked as if the ball would bounce off of the outfield wall, but it just hung high enough to clear the fence. Wong had won the game on a walk-off home run. As he passed first base, in the same exact spot where he had faltered an October before, Wong raised clenched fists in jubilation. In one swing, he had shifted his Major League legacy from World Series goat to seasoned veteran. The Honolulu native, standing five-feet nine-inches tall and uniformed in old-fashioned striped stirrups, had re-written his young legacy. Baseball is nothing if not a great pardoner of heavy hearts, as long as he who is stricken with such an emotion is willing to forgive himself. Wong sprinted around second, third, and galloped home. He whipped his helmet across the infield, calling back to another recent Cardinal walk-off hero, the then relatively unknown David Freese in game six of the 2011 World Series. October can turn the boldest of players into nervous wrecks, and in equal hand, elevate a commoner to things unimaginable. St. Louis still has a tall task ahead as the series shifts to San Francisco, but if momentum has any bearing at all, the Cardinals should have no worries whatsoever.

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