Cardinals pushing for aggressive baserunning

Cardinals pushing for aggressive baserunning

JUPITER, Fla. -- Manager Mike Matheny was ready with a teaching moment for Charlie Tilson when the young outfielder returned to the dugout in the third inning of Wednesday's exhibition game against Florida Atlantic University.

Tilson had just walked, swiped a base and scored the club's first run. But Matheny wanted to see more. He had already addressed the topic of aggressive baserunning in a morning meeting, imploring his players to take chances now so that they could put pressure on the defense and better learn their limits.

Tilson missed an opportunity for both when he jogged from second to third on a single to right field.

"A guy that runs like him," Matheny said, "he's going to make somebody absolutely freak out and throw it eight rows deep if he busts his butt around third base making it look like he's going to score."

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The anecdote, which Matheny relayed on Thursday morning, seemed prescient hours later when Tommy Pham did precisely as Matheny has asked in a 4-3 victory over the Marlins. Pham broke aggressively out of the box after lining a ball to right field and kept sprinting as he rounded second. His push for third drew a high throw from gold glover Dee Gordon that, while it didn't end up in the eighth row of seats, was errant enough that Pham could trot home.

Matheny's push for aggressiveness isn't new, but it is necessary. The projected starting lineup is not laced with speed -- the Cardinals ranked 11th in the National League in stolen bases (69) and 14th in success rate (64.5 percent) last season -- but that doesn't mean the club can't benefit from aggressive baserunning.

According to baseballreference.com, the Cardinals had an extra-base-taken percentage (defined as advancing more than one base on a single and more than two on a double) of 39 percent, which was equal to the Major League average. Their baserunners went first-to-third on a single 81 times in 306 opportunities, first-to-home on a double 35 times in 82 opportunities and second-to-home on a single 98 times in 164 opportunities.

Seeking an uptick in those percentages, Matheny has encouraged his players to run aggressively this spring -- even if it results in running into outs.

"Everybody has the freedom to run until we shut you down," Matheny said. "You guys might see somebody getting picked off on a base, but they don't know how far they can push their leads until they push the limits. Sometimes that gets them into a little further spot than they would want or be comfortable [with]. But that's the only way to know."

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When it comes to basestealing, look, in particular, for Kolten Wong to take more chances in Grapefruit League play. Wong swiped 20 bases in 24 attempts when he appeared in 113 games two years ago. He set bold stolen-base goals last spring only to finish with 15 in 23 tries.

Over his last 39 games last season, Wong had one stolen-base attempt.

"I know I'm a better baserunner," Wong said. "I want to get back to it. And working with someone who is known for his baserunning like Willie, I'm definitely going to keep working with him."

That Willie, of course, is Willie McGee, a special assistant to the general manager who is down in Spring Training to assist as a guest instructor. McGee and Wong have chatted this spring about the art of basestealing, with McGee telling Wong that he used spring games as an opportunity to experiment with his leads.

Wong intends to do the same.

"Regardless if I get picked off, thrown out, whatever," Wong said, "I want to make sure that when I get into the season, I know what my limits are and I understand how to get myself ready."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for Cardinals.com and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.