ST. LOUIS--Jon Jay watched this happen once before. In fact, he lived it.
Barely more than three years ago, Jay stole the Cardinals’ centerfield job. He’ll tell you he won it. Semantics. Colby Rasmus played poorly, and Jay played well. It was July 27, 2011, and St. Louis was gasping for air. Its 55-48 record was fine, but hardly stellar, and Milwaukee sat atop the National League Central. For a franchise as accustomed to success as the Cardinals, that wasn’t good enough, and it didn’t matter that Rasmus was a former first-round pick who’d been tagged as the team’s centerfielder of the future. Future became past when Rasmus was dealt to Toronto that day, and Jay took over. He went on to hit .297 for the season, which ended with St. Louis winning its 11th World Series championship.
Jay’s has been a career defined by team success. Since coming to the major leagues in 2010, he’s missed the playoffs just once, in his rookie year. The three seasons since then have ended in October and include last year's National League pennant. This season? “We’re in it for the long haul,” he says. “It’s not about April or May, June or July. It’s about being in the position that we’re in now.”
Perhaps it is that philosophy, in the waning days of the season, that kept Jay sane during the dog days of this past summer. After a 2013 season in which he slipped offensively and defensively – and then hit just .192 in October, as St. Louis lost the World Series to the Red Sox – the Cardinals let their eyes wander last offseason. It had been more than two years since their title, and the magic of its most recent title had finally run out. That fact was never clearer than on Nov. 22, 2013, when the team dealt 2011 World Series hero David Freese to the Angels for a package that included outfielder Peter Bourjos, who started for St. Louis on Opening Day – in centerfield.
With his contract expiring after this season, Jay looked like a man who should be hunting for a new job. But by June 1, Bourjos’ average hovered near .200, and when Jay did play, he played well. Once again, the Cardinals tore up their preseason outfield blueprint, and by late July, Jay was back as the everyday centerfielder. Since Aug. 5, managed Mike Matheny has penciled Jay into the lineup for all but four games – two of which were due to an undisclosed personal matter. Over that period, Jay drove in 22 runs, scored 24 and posted a .325 batting average, more than 40 points better than that of his next-closest teammate. Perhaps not coincidentally, St. Louis went 31-21 from that point on and turned a one-game NL Central deficit into its second consecutive division title.
“There’s two ways you can look at it,” Jay says of his rollercoaster season. “You can be positive or negative. I’m a positive person. I just continue to work hard and wait for an opportunity. I get how this game works, get how this business works. … For me, that’s the easy part, just going out there and competing. I like competing.”
And compete he did, all the way to a .303 batting average, which would have been be good for the sixth-best mark in the NL – if Jay had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. (Due to his limited playing time early in the season, he fell 34 plate appearances short of the 502 that are required.) However, Jay’s .372 OBP was second-best on the Cardinals, behind only Matt Carpenter’s .375, and his 2.8 WAR was fourth-best among the team’s hitters – even more impressive considering he has more than 150 fewer at bats than the three players with higher marks.
But Jay is anything but bitter. “As long as we're in October, I’m playing a lot and the team’s in the playoff, I’ve had a good year,” he says. It’s an easy line to spout when it’s September and your manager is singing your praises, calling you the “quarterback” of the team and saying you’re integral because of your ability to sense what’s happening on the field. It’s easy when October is looming, and you’ve got a job to do, and you’ve proven you can do it.
It’s easy because the last time Jon Jay won a job in centerfield, he won a ring three months later.