Paul DeJong steps into opportunity he might have ‘dreaded’ before and delivers big hit for Cardinals vs. Yankees

ST. LOUIS — What a major league baseball player was yesterday is not necessarily what he is today. Even though the past can provide hints and suggestions as to what might happen, the past does not absolutely dictate the future. 

This is a truth proven over and over again on a nightly basis, of course, in ways both subtle and obvious. And for one at-bat in the bottom of the eighth inning of a contest between the Yankees and Cardinals, the result was anything but subtle.  

Maybe we should have expected the unexpected at the end of this game. It was already a bit of a goofy night. MLB home run leader Aaron Judge smashed a baseball with an exit velocity of 116.9 mph in the first inning, but he hit the ball right at St. Louis left fielder Tyler O’Neill, who caught it and somehow avoided any broken fingers. His second and third at-bats resulted in bloop singles — at 75.7 and 69.5 mph, respectively. Because, y’know, #baseball.

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With two on and two out in the bottom of the eighth, the Yankees held a one-run lead. Clay Holmes was on the mound for the visitors. Paul DeJong was at bat for the home club. You would be hard-pressed to find two players following more divergent paths in the 2022 season. 

Holmes started the season with a prominent role in the Yankees’ bullpen. He’d been fantastic since New York traded for him before the July 2021 trade deadline, and the Yankees expected to give him a season full of important outs, though not necessarily at the very end of ballgames. He gave up an earned run in the sixth inning on Opening Day, and six of his first nine appearances on the season were before the eighth inning.

After that first hiccup, though, Holmes didn’t allow a run the rest of the month. His ERA at the end of April was a sparkling 0.84.

DeJong was the subject of much speculation in the offseason, but the club stuck with him as its starting shortstop entering the season. He homered in the second game of the year, and then only had two extra-base hits — both doubles — the rest of the month. By the end of April, he was batting just .137.

In May, Holmes did not allow a single run. He did not allow a single walk. In 14 innings, he surrendered just eight hits while striking out 15. By the middle of the month, he was the closer for the Yankees, the team that just didn’t seem to lose. 

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In May, DeJong played just eight games for the Cardinals, batting .115 with a .297 OPS. He was sent down to Triple-A Memphis, lost. In 16 games that month for the Redbirds — his first extended time in the minors since 2017 — he hit two home runs and had a .634 OPS. 

In June, Holmes allowed one earned run and three walks and struck out 12 in 12 innings. He went 8 for 9 in save opportunities. 

In June, DeJong spent days, then weeks, then the entire month in the minors. He batted just .223 but found his power again, popping nine home runs and posting an .820 OPS. 

“I had faith that I would make my return,” DeJong told The Sporting News after the game Friday. “When I first got down there, I was anticipating when I would be coming back, but as time went on I was just focusing on playing the game down there. I knew if I did my job down there, I would get a chance back up here. I eased into it as time went on.”

In July, Holmes made his first All-Star team. He finally had one hiccup outing but cruised into the break with a 1.31 ERA

In July, DeJong was hit with a pitch and missed a few weeks. He started to hit home runs with much more regularity, though, including six in a nine-game stretch that also included 18 RBIs. But, again, in Memphis. In the minors. He was finally called back up at the end of July and homered in each of his first two games before going 1 for 9 in the three-game set against the Cubs to open August. 

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So, back to Friday’s game. DeJong, whose return to the majors with the Cardinals looked to be in serious jeopardy for more than just fleeting moments, stepped to the plate against Holmes, whose career had taken off in 2022 beyond most anyone’s wildest imagination. The Yankees led 3-2. Nolan Arenado (infield single) was on second base, Tyler O’Neill (walk) was on first.

The pitcher with the 1.77 ERA vs. the hitter with the .140 average in 2022. 

Holmes unleashed a 95 mph sinker that caught a little too much of the plate. DeJong smashed it the other way, and the ball rattled around in the right-field corner. Arenado and O’Neill scored, and the Cardinals suddenly led 4-3. 

“DeJong put a great swing on one and really hurt him, obviously,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said after the game. “Tough inning. I thought Clay threw the ball a lot better and was in command of what he was doing, for the most part.”

What DeJong has been most of the season was not what he was Friday night. 

“Earlier in the year, I might have dreaded an opportunity like that, but now I’m thankful for an opportunity like that, after everything that’s happened this year,” he said. “I’m just really happy to be back here and contributing the way that I am.”

What Holmes has been most of the season was not what he was Friday night. 

The past did not dictate the present. Baseball, the sport of 162 games and six months and enough time for ebbs and flows that other sports don’t allow, presented an opportunity for DeJong on Friday, and he seized the moment.

And not in a subtle way.

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