9.13.18

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BASEBALL

B6 • ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

M 1 • THUrSDAy • 09.13.2018

Munoz has become Mr. Versatility Has contributed at six spots, in addition to being sturdy at plate BY RICK HUMMEL St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A benchmark for a bench player in baseball is the team’s won-loss record when he starts. Anything around .500 is considered good because the team does not seem to have lost anything with the insertion of a particular reserve. Rookie Yairo Munoz started at shortstop on Wednesday and gave Paul DeJong most of a day off in the Cardinals’ 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium. He has started at six different positions this year — shortstop, third base, second base and all three outfield positions. And the Cardinals are 34-29 when the Dominican Republic native is in the lineup. The breakdown is 9-8 at second base; 17-17 at shortstop; 4-2 at third base; 1-0 in left field; 2-0 in center and 1-2 in right. Munoz’s best position, though, might be at bat – his .281 average ranks second on the club to Jose Martinez’s .304 – and Munoz also has eight homers and 15 doubles in 256 at-bats. The only positions not on his bigleague résumé are first base, pitcher and catcher. Manager Mike Shildt didn’t rule out first base but does not anticipate Munoz playing all nine spots, as did his mentor, coach Jose Oquendo, the Cardinals’ “Secret Weapon,” in the late 1980s. Pitching and catching are not in Shildt’s plan. “Maybe in another galaxy somewhere far away,” Shildt said. “He’s similar to ‘Cheo (Oquendo).’ He’s a Secret Weapon kind of guy but I don’t see pitching and catching on his radar anytime soon.” Oquendo, pondering the matter, said, “Catching ... I don’t know about that. In an emergence anybody can pitch. He’s capable. I know he can throw, so he might be able to pitch.” Munoz, 23, was acquired from Oakland in the offseason trade involving outfielder Stephen Piscotty, who is having a big power year with the Athletics, having hit 23 homers and 39 doubles and driving in 75 runs for the playoff-bound A’s. But Munoz has kept the Cardinals afloat when they’ve suffered injuries, such as when DeJong was out some seven weeks because of a broken finger. “I haven’t seen a glaring weakness anywhere we’ve put him,” Shildt said. “He’s done a nice job across the board.

LAURIE SKRIVAN • lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

The Cards’ Yairo Munoz, who played Wednesday at shortstop and third base, rounds third to score on a hit by Paul DeJong in the ninth inning.

He’s just a baseball player. He gets it done wherever you put him.” Munoz has been charged with 12 errors but he also is credited with 12 defensive “gems,” according to the Cardinals’ public relations staff. Many of those errors came in clusters in June, shortly after DeJong was hurt, including three on June 6 against Miami. Munoz could have come unglued then but Oquendo was there with the right words. “He said the main thing is how you behave after those games — how you compose yourself,” Munoz said through his translator, Carlos Villoria-Benitez. “He told me, ‘You might have three errors today. But you might have a stretch of 50 games without an error.’ That confidence he showed in me, that he believes in me, kept me going to work with him and try to be better every day.” Oquendo said, “And that’s not just defensively, but offensively, too. Early in the season, he was swinging a lot at the first pitch and getting nothing done. We talked about it and I said, ‘Don’t be afraid to hit with two strikes.’ “He needs to choke up on the bat, like

he did on that last at-bat (Munoz singled in the ninth on Wednesday).” Munoz added: “He’s helped me how to play each position. I wouldn’t have been able to have the success I’ve had without him.” “I’m proud of him,” said Oquendo. “He’s been working hard and he’s been paying attention once he got better. He’s a pretty good listener. We all like him. He’s been keeping his head above water and not passing that line. He’s stayed where he’s supposed to.” Oquendo said his best position when he played with the Cardinals “was being in the game.” And Munoz concurred. “Wherever they put me. I just want to be in the lineup,” he said. “I feel comfortable playing all positions but the ones I feel most comfortable at are third base and shortstop. I feel good playing second base but not with the same confidence I have playing shortstop and third base.” He also said he enjoyed playing center field more than the corner outfield spots. He is unbeaten there, after all, most recently starting there Sunday in Detroit. “There’s not a difficult position to play,” Munoz said.

“If you prepare your mind to play a position, everything comes easy. Oquendo told me you have to prepare to play as many as four positions in the same game. “But the most difficult position to play is catching because I haven’t done it that much (not all professionally). If they need me, I can pitch.” And, first base? “I can play there,” he said, laughing. Oquendo said, “I think he can play all the positions above average if he spends the time at the position, probably like me. I came up as a shortstop but I became a pretty good second baseman because I spent a lot of time at it.” Munoz would seem to be able to throw harder than curveball-tossing Oquendo did in 1988 when he pitched four innings and suffered the loss in a 19-inning game here with Atlanta. Oquendo, smiling, said, “I think I had a better arm. That’s what I’ve been telling him. So I’ve got to keep it that way. “I’ve got more innings than he does.” Rick Hummel @cmshhummel on Twitter rhummel@post-dispatch.com

MLB NOTEBOOK

Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader legs out a single by beating a throw to Pittsburgh first baseman Josh Bell in the fifth inning of the Pirates’ victory on Wednesday afternoon at Busch Stadium.

Yankees on pace to avoid luxury tax for the first time The New York Yankees are set to achieve their goal of coming in under baseball’s luxury tax threshold for the first time since the penalty started in 2003. Boston and Washington remain the only teams on track to pay the tax his year, according to Aug. 31 figures compiled by the commissioner’s office for clubs and obtained by The Associated Press. The Yankees’ updated luxury tax payroll is $192.1 million, an increase from $178.8 million at the season’s start. New York is set to finish below this year’s $197 million threshold even with possible performance bonuses of $500,000 for pitcher CC Sabathia pitching 155 innings and $125,000 for infielder Neil Walker reaching 425 plate appearances, plus the addition of nearly $3,000 a day for each September call-up on expanded 40-man active rosters. New York has paid the tax in 15 straight years, a total of $341 million. Boston’s luxury tax payroll was at $238.4 million on Aug. 31, up from $233.9 million on opening day. That boosted the projected tax for the AL East-leading Red Sox to $11.3 million from $9.4 million. Washington’s luxury tax payroll was second at $203.9 million, an increase from $201.1 million that raised the projected tax to $2.1 million from $1.2 million. Yanks’ Chapman nears return • New York All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman could return next week from nearly a month on the disabled list. Chapman has not pitched since Aug. 21 because of left knee tendinitis. The 30-year-old lefthander threw a bullpen session Wednesday and was to return to New York for treatment. Manager Aaron Boone anticipates another bullpen session this weekend. Chapman has a 2.11 ERA and 31 saves in 33 chances. Elbow surgery for Cubs’ Darvish • Chicago righthander Yu Darvish had arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow to clean out loose debris. Darvish was declared out for the season last month after an MRI revealed a stress reaction in the elbow. He recently visited orthopedic surgeon James Andrews for a second opinion and the surgery was recommended. Meanwhile, after throwing a 35-pitch bullpen session Wednesday, closer Brandon Morrow said he will again this season — even if in a limited role. Also, the Cubs have changed the starting time of their home game Friday, against the Reds, from 1:20 p.m. to 7:05 p.m. That’s because they have a makeup game now set for Thursday in Washington. From news services

LAURIE SKRIVAN • lskrivan@ post-dispatch.com

Cards’ youngsters face LA’s vast experience HOCHMAN • FROM B1

Thirteen current Cards played in Memphis at some point last year, and some of that team’s grandest postseason achievers are current Cards. So, yeah, many of the 2018 Cardinals are inexperienced major leaguers, but they’ve experienced high-pressured winning — and not just since manager Mike Shildt took over in July. In the Busch Stadium dugout Wednesday, before the Cards’ toe-stub against Pittsburgh, the skipper was asked for qualities that define his team. He spoke of consistency, preparation and relentlessness. Asked if these were contagious, Shildt suggested a stronger word: “It’s a standard, really, that they hold themselves to.” And we’ve seen it, time and again, with this group, entering the four-game series two games ahead of LA for the second wild-card playoff spot. Even in defeat, we’ve seen some Bird grit. On Wednesday, they scored in the eighth and ninth inning — and had two on, two out and Matt Carpenter up (a Dakota Hudson-esque slider, called for strike three, ceased the day for St. Louis). But we’ll learn so much more about the Cards in the gauntlet that’s the quartet of games at Busch, the first three started by pitchers with an average age of 24. This is, after all, officially a pennant race (there’s now a league-designed logo on scoreboards that reads “PENNANT RACE 2018”). “We’re going to have to come out ready because these guys are hungry for that spot, too,” shortstop Paul DeJong said of the Dodgers, the defending National League champs, who have 11 active players who have been All-Stars. “We know

they’re right behind us. What we did to them in LA, they remember that, so they’re coming in here trying to sweep us. … Our goal is to try to get on the starters early and try to get in that bullpen and extend some leads.” Well, the first starter they’ll try to get to early is Clayton Edward Kershaw, who’s having his worst ERA season since 2012. Sounds promising, but then consider his 2018 ERA is 2.42. Hey, the Cards did bring back Matt Adams! As for the Redbirds, they’ll counter with a lanky lefty of their own, Austin Gomber, who would’ve been pitching for Memphis in this year’s postseason (going on right now, actually), except he’s helping the big club vie for its own postseason berth. And while Kershaw’s kerplunking curveball baffles batters, Gomber also throws one with some friction and conviction. On the fancy stat site Fangraphs. com, Gomber’s curveball clearly rates as his best pitch. “It’s unique that there aren’t many of those in the game,” Shildt said. “Not everyone can throw a bigger one that keeps that spin without it being loopy. He keeps that spin first and tight. … I think there’s some similarity to (Kershaw’s). I think it’ll be fun, a fun matchup.” And one fun aspect to the Cards is their late-in-game gluttony – coinciding with a lot of their success and their most thrilling of the successes. In innings 7-9, only five National League teams average more than the Cards’ 1.41 runs per game (compared to their 1.30 runs per game last year in innings 7-9). “That’s very promising for an offense for sure,” rookie outfielder Harrison Bader

said. “Especially moving into these later parts of the season. Today was just another example of that. Just a bunch of confidence.” This series should be scintillating. The Dodgers and baseball’s secondhighest payroll of active players — yet a flawed, marred club, one without bullpen depth and with underachieving has-beens (or current “are-nots.”). And they traded for Manny Machado and might miss the playoffs! And they have numerous familiar faces from St. Louis autumns past, from Yasiel Puig to Chase Utley to David Freese. And then, here are these St. Louis Cardinals, with a revamped coaching staff, rotation, outfield and bullpen. And with guys who probably still get mail in Memphis. “Whenever there’s a lot of change, it can spark an excitement, because there’s this new feeling of like — we don’t know what’s going to happen, but these could be really good things,” said Cardinals pitcher John Brebbia, whose red beard is so big and thick now, he could sneak Kolten Wong into a movie in that thing. “All of a sudden, you start winning a little bit and it was like — oh wow, these things were really good. And then you kept winning. “Holy cow — all these things that have happened have added to what was already a pretty solid foundation. And there was no point after it happened that there was a negative. It was all trending up, the term ‘Mo’ likes to use. It’s almost compounded on each other, the opposite snowball. It’s getting bigger going up the mountain.” Benjamin Hochman @hochman on Twitter bhochman@post-dispatch.com