JUPITER, Fla. • Center fielder Jon Jay has played for the Cardinals in four straight National League championship series and in two World Series in that time. He has been in the majors for only four full seasons so those accomplishments seem very significant. But ... there always are naysayers.
Arm isn’t strong enough. Doesn’t have enough power. Not really all that fast. Would be a good fourth outfielder.
Yet, all he does is hit .300 and wind up playing in October. So Jon Jay must be doing something right.
Asked the other day how often he had heard people say he was lacking in one area or another, the 5-foot-11 Jay quickly answered, “My whole life. But I don’t worry about other people. That’s (a trait) I’ve always had since I was young. I stayed on track and didn’t pay attention to what was going on.”
Jay and a half dozen or more Cardinals prospects had a watershed year in 2009, when they banded and bonded on the Class AAA Memphis club that won the Pacific Coast League title under manager Chris Maloney — now the Cardinals’ first-base coach. Jay’s teammates included Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, David Freese, Shane Robinson and Tyler Greene, all of whom would make it to the big leagues with the Cardinals and all of whom played for the Cardinals in 2011 when they won the World Series.
Craig, Descalso, Robinson and Jay also were with the club during the next three seasons that all ended with at least a berth in the National League championship series.
“‘Hammer’ (Maloney) always kept things loose,” Jay said. “He let us play our game and believed in us. He didn’t try to change us. We kind of got knocked around in the first half of the season because we were up against a lot of veteran guys. But in the second half of that season, what we were able to do was awesome. At the beginning, he had said, ‘You guys are good ballplayers. You’ll figure it out.’’’
Jay did, hitting .281 at Memphis that year and then .321 the next year before being promoted to St. Louis, where he hit .300 in the second half of 2010. Now, of those half-dozen players, only Jay remains with the Cardinals.
He admitted that the group often talked of getting to the big leagues together, even though in some other organization they might have advanced quicker.
“But we always talked about having a chance to win once we got to St. Louis,” he said. “Not a lot of guys get a chance to do that. Two years later, we get to the World Series and we’ve had a nice run since then.”
‘A WINNING-TYPE BALLPLAYER’
Maloney said he had no doubt that Jay would make the big leagues and excel. p:BC body copy 1st graph
“He was a winning-type ballplayer back then,” Maloney said. “The way he loves baseball, he’s still like a little leaguer, which is very rare at this level.
“He’s a true Cardinal guy,” Maloney added. “He’s what you want to draw up on the board for being a big-league player.”
That he is the lone survivor of that group disappoints Jay to an extent.
“You form good friendships,” he said. “Those were my go-to guys but I have a lot of other good friends on the team. It’s like going to college. You spend three years with some of your best friends and then you move on. That’s kind of what happened here.”
Craig, who was traded to Boston last year, says Jay has survived “because he’s a great ballplayer and he’s a natural leader.”
Jay was a top player on his Columbus High School baseball team in his native Miami but he said, “I knew I wasn’t ready for pro ball out of high school. I knew I wanted to go to college and get better.”
Jay enrolled at the University of Miami but before he got there, he gained valuable experience playing for the Florida Bombers amateur team.
“We traveled all over the country and our whole team was Division I prospects,” Jay said. “We had five or six (future) big leaguers on that team. Then, I went to Miami and played with 10 big-league guys there — guys like (Ryan) Braun and Gaby Sanchez.
“After my sophomore year in college, I played on Team USA. We had David Price and Max Scherzer and (Matt) Wieters. These were all elite guys — Cy Young guys or All-Stars. So, I always had confidence in myself knowing that once I got to pro ball, I had to just take care of myself and make adjustments and I would be all right.”
Jay was a second-round draft choice by the Cardinals in 2006 and immediately put up a .342 average in 60 games at Class A Quad Cities. He then hit .286 at Class A Palm Beach and then .306 at Class AA Springfield before finishing 2008 with a .345 mark in 15 games at Memphis. He was on his way.
“I always felt like I was a big leaguer,” said Jay, who turns 30 on Sunday.
This offseason, Jay was rewarded with a two-year, $10.975 million contract.
“I was glad to be able to get a two-year deal done,” he said. “Now it’s up to me to continue to show why I should be here beyond that.”
Last year, Jay hit a club-high .303. His defense, which generally had been strong in center field every year except the second half of 2013 (“there were some balls that year that maybe I had caught in the past&rdquo
again was above the norm last year. And Jay fended off the advance of Peter Bourjos, who was acquired from the Angels to be the regular center fielder.
“Something I’ve always said about this organization since Day One is they’re going to do whatever they can to continue to win,” Jay said.
“Last year we brought in Peter. I had a pretty good rookie year in 2010 and then we brought in (Lance) Berkman the next year. And the next year after that, we brought in (Carlos) Beltran. We’re going to try to get better any way we can and that’s just the bottom line.”
Bourjos, who is trying to win a reserve role now, can appreciate what Jay has done.
“Jay is a .300 hitter and has shown that over several years,” Bourjos said. “That’s not easy to do, and you look at what he did last year, and how it was a ‘bounce back’ year. He was bouncing back to the player he is.”
In the 2014 postseason, Jay was even better, going 14 for 29, all with a sore left wrist that required surgery that has kept him out of games so far this spring but not for much longer, Jay thinks.
Perhaps Jay was consistent because, for much of last season and the playoffs, he stayed with one batting stance, rather than trying on several versions. No longer waggling the bat furiously as he holds it aloft, Jay lays the bat against his shoulder before starting his approach.p:BC body copy 1st graph
Jay credits hitting coach John Mabry for enabling him to maintain one stance.
“I’ve been able to work with some good hitting coaches — Mark McGwire as well — but ‘Mabes’ helped get me to the next level,” Jay said.
“It was all timing. Sometimes, my hands would get started late and pitchers would take advantage. I was fouling off or missing pitches that I should hit early in the count.”
Jay glances around the clubhouse and sees the makings of another quest for World Series gold.
“If everyone can just do a little better than last year and be a little smarter, then I’ll think we’ll be all right,” he said.
On a personal level, Jay said, “My goal is always to be playing in September in meaningful games and being part of the lineup. If I’m in the lineup and playing meaningful games ... then I did something well.”