CHICAGO • There have been nights this season when Cardinals’ Class AAA infielder Ryan Jackson leaves AutoZone Park, located three blocks off of Beale Street, for the short stroll to his hotel room with a bat in his hand and a swing on his mind.
He’s walking in Memphis, searching for that feel.
And he doesn’t care how it looks to passersby.
“I’m trying to get that swing where I want to get it, and I’m always thinking about it,” Jackson said. “They can think I’m weird all they want. I’m working.”
What Jackson has done with a bat in his hand inside that ballpark has helped the young infielder reappear from the curious limbo he found himself in at the end of last season.
The result of poor timing more than poor performance, Jackson went from the first shortstop promoted to tumbling down the depth chart as spring started.
Pete Kozma seized the role Jackson could have had if not for the situation, and he left the season aware his game had to improve to regain his standing. He needed to refine his play in the field. He needed to alter his approach at the plate.
The early returns have been steadier and include recently increased play at shortstop for the Triple-A Redbirds and a .305 average, down from .345 he hit in May but helped by a four-hit game Wednesday. He didn’t need to carry the bat home that night.
“I’m a better player this year, and with being a better player comes more confidence, something I didn’t always have,” Jackson said. “Last year, my approach wasn’t that great. Last year was a learning experience. I had my faults. Everything had to improve.
“I am not that same guy.”
The Cards quietly have reassessed the shortstop position at the big-league level as Kozma has fallen into a profound funk at the plate.
The rookie infielder pinch-hit Saturday with the tying runs on base, but grounded out to end the Cardinals’ 6-4 loss to the Cubs. He now is in an 0-for-27 spiral, and in his past 32 starts and previous 125 plate appearances had a .184 on-base percentage and a .213 slugging percentage. Kozma has 29 strikeouts and three walks in last 121 plate appearances.
Daniel Descalso started at shortstop for the sixth time in nine games Saturday and a platoon has developed — if not by name certainly by actions. The Cardinals also are keeping tabs on the market for available shortstops as the July 31 trade deadline approaches, window-shopping they started last winter.
ESPN recently connected the Cardinals to Cleveland’s Asdrubal Cabrera. The Cardinals and Indians discussed Cabrera this past winter but the asking price for the shortstop was steep.
Other teams are seeking the Cardinals’ top starting pitching prospects in deals, and the Cardinals are reluctant to part with them for a short-term solution at a position they can fill from within, for now.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has remained steadfast in his support for Kozma, a former first-round pick. The feeling internally is that Kozma is the superior defensive option at the position, ahead of Jackson in the field.
In the Cardinals’ win Friday against the Cubs, Kozma had a backhanded play and throw to second for an out that squelched what could have been a game-tying rally for the Chicago.
“I just stand by what we believe — how much value he brings to us defensively,” Matheny said. “We’ll let him continue to battle at the plate while we take our best shot at winning and at times that’s putting our best defender out there at certain positions.”
‘Not what I wanted’
Meanwhile in Memphis, Jackson has been considered for a promotion.
Described by fellow players and former coaches as “a baseball rat,” Jackson entered 2012 as the more highly regarded prospect at shortstop.
Good instincts made up for average speed, and he was nimble enough to handle the range. His bat stirred for 11 homers and 48 extra-base hits to go with a .278 average at Class AA in 2011. The Cardinals moved Kozma to a utility role in Memphis in order to install Jackson as the starter. And when an infielder was needed in the majors in August 2012, Jackson got the call. His promotion started the fall.
Jackson debuted against Philadelphia at second base, a position he had rarely played, and did so with groundball-getter Jake Westbrook on the mound. Jackson committed an error, took a ball off his shoulder, and struggled.
“I’ll always remember that game,” Jackson said. “I played the best I could at the time. The game obviously was not what I wanted it to be. It wasn’t perfect. But I did learn.”
Jackson’s playing time was limited in the majors while Kozma took over at shortstop in Memphis.
When Rafael Furcal’s elbow unraveled at the end of August, the Cardinals needed a shortstop. Kozma had been playing it more regularly than Jackson. One week either way and Jackson gets a crack. Instead Kozma took off, helping the Cardinals to the postseason.
“I would say that it was more of a runaway because it was so dramatic,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “What you realize through all of this is that it’s fluid. Last year (Jackson) didn’t really distinguish himself when he got his opportunity. Kozma came in and he just did everything right. It was sort of magical in a way, not to get corny. It wasn’t so much that anybody did something wrong as he just did everything right.”
working to improve
Jackson’s play sagged and some felt his body language followed.
Officials talked to him about both. The shortstop acknowledged that with Memphis’ struggles last season he wore the standings on his sleeve. But a change started the day after that debut in Philadelphia.
Coach Jose Oquendo brought him into a room to watch film of his plays in the field. Jackson saw a play in which he dived for a grounder hit by Chase Utley to complicate a play he could have made easily if he had stayed on his feet.
That became a mantra for this season, and has helped him increase the plays he makes that appear routine.
Stay on your feet.
Stay on your feet.
Stay on your feet.
Hitting coaches Mark McGwire and John Mabry told him “things I never had heard before in language I could understand about my approach,” Jackson said.
He shortened his stride to steady his head and keep the barrel of the bat in the strike zone longer. That was what Mabry told him late last season and it echoed through the winter.
Keep your barrel.
Keep your barrel.
Keep your barrel.
“I feel for my fiancée,” Jackson said. “All this offseason I just hit, hit, hit, hit, hit, hit, hit. We have a cage at my parents house (in Miami) and I was there every day. I didn’t want to take the time off because I was so excited with what I was being taught. I wanted to get it right.”
The day he went back to minor-league camp this past spring, his offense clicked. His .305 average and .381 on-base percentage rank second in the Pacific Coast League among shortstops.
It’s no longer a riddle where he fits, just a question of opportunity.
And then, of course, what he does with it.
“I’m a competitor. I want to be a baseball player,” Jackson said. “I came into camp to show them what happened before was all in the past. I know what I needed to improve on. I know I needed to both look better and player better. I know what I needed to do, and I have gone out there to make it happen.”