TAMPA, Fla. -- Jeremy Hazelbaker carried his suit into the visitors' clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Thursday unsure whether he'd be wearing it out or packing it back up.
With that suit hanging in his locker, Hazelbaker went out and capped a standout spring with a three-run homer and a two-hit game in the Cardinals' 9-1 win over the Yankees. And afterward, he learned that he had packed for good purpose -- a suit and tie would be needed to meet the dress code for the team's flight to Pittsburgh.
After 751 career Minor League games spanning three organizations and less than a year after being released as a Double-A player, Hazelbaker has made it to the Majors.
"You can't really," said Hazelbaker, when asked to put the reality into words. "It's an indescribable feeling. It's been a long journey, quite a journey. It's finally paid off."
Hazelbaker's spot on the Cardinals' Opening Day roster was not assured as he took the field for the club's spring finale. The day started with only the team's final bench spot up for grabs, and Greg Garcia seemed to still have the inside track. The Cardinals merely wanted to see how Garcia, who had missed three games with a sore right knee, responded on Thursday before making any announcements.
Plans changed, though, as soon as Ruben Tejada came up hobbling in the second inning with a left quad strain. The injury opened up roster room for both Garcia and Hazelbaker.
"All the way across the board, this guy is a really good player," manager Mike Matheny said of the 28-year-old outfielder. "I told him today that we were very fortunate we were able to get him."
Matheny called Hazelbaker into his office to deliver the message, one so different than what Hazelbaker received last time he had been summoned into a manager's office. That was last spring, one month into his seventh Minor League season, when Hazelbaker was called in for a meeting and given his release by the Dodgers' organization.
Shortly thereafter, the Cardinals signed him and placed him on their Double-A roster.
"A second chance, an opportunity," Hazelbaker called it. "This organization is like none that I've ever seen or been a part of. They give guys an opportunity, and they gave me an opportunity and a chance. I took full advantage of it."
He hit his way out of Double-A and finished 2015 as a standout offensive player in Triple-A. That earned him a non-roster invite to Spring Training, where he impressed with his defensive versatility, baserunning and bat. He hit .304 and led the club with three homers and 10 RBIs.
"I came out here and did what I thought I could do and knew I could do," Hazelbaker said. "I showed them I'm capable of playing at that level."
While Hazelbaker joined the Major League club on its flight out of Florida, four other players learned they would not be accompanying them. The Cardinals announced after the game that they had reassigned Juan Gonzalez, Eric Fryer, Jacob Wilson and Carlos Peguero to Minor League camp. The series of moves shrunk the team's spring camp count to 30 and essentially set the Opening Day roster. It is projected to look like this: