PITTSBURGH -- Exclusively a left fielder over the first 12 years of his Major League career, Matt Holliday opened the 2016 season somewhere new on Sunday in Cardinals' 4-1 loss to the Pirates.
After a winter's worth of work to learn the new position and a spring to show he could handle it, Holliday was tabbed as the Cardinals' Opening Day first baseman. The move to the infield allowed the Cardinals to improve their outfield defense and add another right-handed bat (Tommy Pham) into the lineup against Pirates starter Francisco Liriano.
Holliday's positional debut turned out to be brief, however, as he shifted back to left field in the second inning when Pham had to exit due to left oblique tightness.
Pham first alerted the Cardinals to some tightness in his side during batting practice but passed all the subsequent tests without issue. After grounding out in his first-inning at-bat, Pham felt his side tighten as he warmed up in the outfield before the bottom half of the frame.
Pham was undergoing an MRI on Sunday afternoon to determine the severity.
Before returning to his natural position, Holliday had an uneventful stay at first base. Until Sunday, every one of Holliday's 13,838 2/3 innings on a big league field had come in left. The decision to add to his versatility was Holliday's own, as he took initiative over the offseason to learn the new position.
"I think early on he showed that he was comfortable over there," general manager John Mozeliak said. "We, as an organization, didn't want to make a big deal about it. But it's something that he just continued to work at. Honestly, from the very first day I saw him over there, he seemed to be very comfortable. After 45 days of Spring Training, I think it emboldened all of us that he could do it."
The Cards added to that exposure by using Holliday at first base regularly in Grapefruit League play. By mid-March, manager Mike Matheny was describing Holliday as a "viable option" at the position.
"Just like everybody else, I didn't want to have all the preconceived ideas getting in the way of all the work they did, and Matt was one of the great examples," Matheny said. "As we just let him do his thing, we followed his pace, realizing that this was something he was doing the driving on, and he felt really good about where he was. I think it showed in the way he played."
Holliday isn't done starting in left field. He'll get time out there when the Cardinals want to start Matt Adams against a right-handed pitcher. Matheny said that Holliday and Brandon Moss could flip-flop between left field and first base depending upon how the Cardinals want to align themselves defensively.