ST. LOUIS — Jake Westbrook waited patiently by his locker, placed on hold by a nearby media throng surrounding the St. Louis Cardinals’ unlikely rookie star. Minutes earlier, Westbrook put the finishing touches on his first shutout in nearly seven seasons, but he could not complain about the lack of attention.
Exaggerating only slightly, Westbrook pointed out that burly Matt Adams was, after all, hitting .700.
When the 24-year-old Adams earned one of the team’s final bench spots with a strong spring, manager Mike Matheny said he’d try to give the former 23rd-round pick a couple starts a week. After Adams homered for the second consecutive game Wednesday, helping the Cardinals take two of three from the defending NL Central champion Reds, Matheny fielded questions from those eager to see more of the backup first baseman who’s made three starts the first nine games.
“We like having his bat in there whenever we can get him in there,” Matheny said. “And we like having the other guys in there, too. It is a challenge to try to keep them all right, get them right.”
Adams’ gaudy .643 average would lead the NL by nearly 200 points if he had enough at-bats to qualify. He’s made the most of just 14 trips to the plate with nine hits and plenty of pop from the sixth and seventh spots, belting his first career pinch homer off Bronson Arroyo for the go-ahead runs Tuesday.
Adams is tied for the team lead in homers with Matt Holliday, who has 17 more at-bats. He’s second with seven RBI, just one behind Carlos Beltran with 14 fewer at-bats.
At 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds he has a slugger’s physique.
“You just watch his batting practice, too,” Matheny said. “The ball has trajectory and it has carry. He has that kind of lofting power that not too many guys have.”
Success hasn’t inflated his ego. Adams, who flashed potential last season in his first taste of the majors, led the team with 17 RBI this spring, and said it’s only natural that he’s improved.
He says that very softly.
“I feel like I’m more of an all-around hitter. Better on off-speed pitches, laying off the ones in the dirt and making them get it up for me,” he said. “I want to give myself and the team the best at-bats I possibly can.”
Matheny has roster flexibility to get Adams more playing time.
Regular first baseman Allen Craig got a day off Wednesday and can play the corner outfield spots. Utilityman Matt Carpenter, who is batting .400, has started at third base and second base after appearing at five positions in 2012. Second baseman Daniel Descalso also can play shortstop.
Catcher Yadier Molina, center fielder Jon Jay and rookie shortstop Pete Kozma have started every game, but everyone else has already gotten days off.
“There’s going to be some bouncing around, guys getting more days off than they’re accustomed to, at least for right now,” Matheny said. “A lot of times, that stuff has a way of working itself out.”
Matheny has no doubt Adams is for real, pointing to impressive numbers at every stop in the minors. He led Triple-A Memphis with 18 homers in just 67 games last season, was the Texas League player of the year for Double-A Springfield in 2011 with 32 homers and 101 RBI and led the Class A Midwest League with 88 RBI along with 22 homers in 2010.
Adams holds the career record with a .473 batting average at Slippery Rock. He tore up rookie ball in 2009 with a .365 average at Johnson City.
“That guy’s hit everywhere he’s been since the day he signed,” Carpenter said. “I’ve never seen him not mash the baseball.”
The eye-opener has been the down time has not affected production.
For the first time in his career, Adams is not playing every day and has appeared in only four games.
Extra work in the batting cage and video study on relievers he might face gives him plenty to do before the game. During the game, input on pitching patterns helps keep the kid engaged.
“In the minor leagues, there really wasn’t much video,” Adams said. “Here, you have any type of video you want.”
Matheny gave Adams plenty of time to prepare mentally and physically before his pinch homer on Tuesday.
“He’s always on the top step, he’s not just sitting around like he’s on vacation,” Matheny said. “He’s very clear about that bench position, that you’re going to probably have to work twice as hard as everybody else.”