Unsung Jon Jay quietly does a stellar job

JUPITER, Fla. -- Jon Jay's career has been played mostly in the shadows of others. It's a position he has come to know as well as center field, but not a reality that Jay reflects on with disdain.

Long a complementary piece and rare cornerstone, Jay offers nary a complaint when he talks about his rather uncelebrated past.

A standout player in high school, he was not the star on a Columbus (Fla.) High School team that won a state championship his senior year. At the University of Miami, he found himself immediately playing alongside last year's National League Most Valuable Player Award winner, Ryan Braun.

Now, he's sandwiched between Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran, a pair of outfielders who own a combined 11 All-Star appearances, six Silver Slugger Awards and three Gold Gloves. It's no wonder why Jay continues to glide under the radar, a spot where he admits he feels he still belongs.

"They deserve to be talked about," Jay said. "They've put in their time in this game. They have the All-Star appearances, all the accolades. ... I'm still trying to survive every day. I still have a lot to prove about myself. I have a lot of confidence in myself, but those guys have been doing this a long time in this game. I'm trying to be consistent like them. That's my goal."

Jay has set some lofty standards and picked out the right players to emulate. But he does carry the pressure of needing to start the season strong in order to hold on to a full-time spot in center. Allen Craig's eventual return -- which could come by mid-April -- will invariably crowd the Cardinals' outfield. Holliday won't be moving out and neither will Beltran -- unless he shifts to his right to play center. That would squeeze Jay out of a spot.

Some sort of platoon scenario involving the left-handed-hitting Jay is also possible.

It's all just additional motivation for Jay to prove that the consistency that defined his first two seasons in the Majors was no fluke.

"I feel like I've had good years where I have been helpful to the team," said Jay, who led the club with 157 games played last year. "But by no means do I feel like I have established myself. I still think I can improve, and I can continue to help the team. Those are my goals."

After batting .300 in his rookie season, Jay returned in 2011 and worked his way from bench player to fill-in corner outfielder to everyday center fielder by the end of the year. He hit .302 in the 107 games he started, and gave the Cardinals stability in center after the organization dealt away Colby Rasmus.

Almost silently, Jay has actually been one of the better hitters to emerge recently in the Majors. He may not flaunt the power or sexy stats of some of the others, but Jay has a .298 batting average that ranks third among all qualifying players with fewer than 750 career at-bats.

His .991 fielding percentage leads all Cardinals outfielders since the start of 2010.

"We've seen him do a nice job quarterbacking in the outfield," manager Mike Matheny said. "I have used that term before -- conscientious -- about how he's thinking ahead and doing more than just standing in the same place every time. He's trying to be prepared to get an edge defensively, and that's a great quality to have from a center fielder."

Jay credits Holliday and Beltran for helping him to continue improving those defensive instincts this spring.

"I'm trying to take command out there," Jay said. "There's a lot of communication going on."

On the offensive side, consistency is once again Jay's aim. He noted that it took him longer than others to regain his timing this spring, and that is reflected in Jay's higher-than-desired strikeout total.

But subpar spring results have actually been the norm for Jay. He combined for a .224 average in Grapefruit League play in 2010 and '11. With two spring games remaining, Jay's average this month sits at .250.

Though the Cardinals are seeking a leadoff hitter, Jay will likely begin the year hitting in the bottom third of the order. It sets up to be another instance where Jay gets buried among the bunch. How fitting, since that is what Jay knows best.

"I have always been lucky to play on some good teams at the level that I've been at," Jay said. "Maybe I don't get talked about much, but we have great players on this team. I just have to play my part and be a part of the big picture. That's fine with me."

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