Unfortunate circumstances give Cardinals newbies a chance to mark their own territory

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There’s a corner of the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse that’s been a strange bellwether of the team’s mood over the last decade.

For a short stretch, it was the corner where Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna sat, as the team tried to re-establish its identity. Today, it’s Nolan Arenado’s corner, making it the unspoken center of gravity in the team’s universe.

A decade ago, that corner is where you’d find a group of players who came to be known as the Memphis Mafia thanks to their simultaneous ascension as important players for a championship team. Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, David Freese, Jon Jay and others all cycled through, and the solid support from the farm system provided the depth a winning team needs.

The 2022 Cardinals haven’t yet won anything of importance, and the only one of this month’s call ups to sit in that corner has been the already-here-and-gone Kramer Robertson, but these reinforcements are marking their own territory. As the first month of the season fades, the red hot Juan Yepez, the versatile Brendan Donovan, and a couple of emergent bullpen arms in Andre Pallante and Jake Walsh are providing ballast to a team coping with the sags that come from a first stretch of ill health.

“It’s awesome,” Donovan said Wednesday night after he provided two doubles, Yepez homered, and Walsh struck out four in a Cardinals victory. “They’re good friends of mine and guys I’ve played with for a couple of years now, so to see them have success, I’m just as happy as me having some success.”

“It’s so much fun, because I’ve been playing with these guys for three, four years in the minor leagues,” Yepez added. “Now we’re all kind of getting our dreams fulfilled. And just being here, it’s amazing.”

As with so many things in baseball, opportunity for the new blood came in part thanks to unfortunate circumstances for players who were previously on the roster. Paul DeJong’s struggles finally came to a head, and the Cardinals had to cope with a minor outbreak of COVID-19 that left them down two players over the last week.

That outbreak opened up at bats for Yepez, and he responded with 12 hits in his first seven games in the big leagues — the same number that Stan Musial had.

“That guy, I was looking at his numbers,” Yepez offered. “He was amazing.”

“That’s the competitiveness that we’re talking about with our offense,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “You look at today, and those at bats look different.”

St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol has enjoyed watching the emergence of newcomers such as Juan Yepez, of whom he said, “Each at bat is personal to him. You can tell that’s a kid that’s been told for a long time that this is impossible. And he’s enjoyed and proven a lot of people wrong.”

St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol has enjoyed watching the emergence of newcomers such as Juan Yepez, of whom he said, “Each at bat is personal to him. You can tell that’s a kid that’s been told for a long time that this is impossible. And he’s enjoyed and proven a lot of people wrong.”

Yepez shining for Birds on Bat

Closer in coherence to Yepez is Miguel Cabrera — his idol and the idol of so many others in Venezuela and throughout baseball over the last two decades. Cabrera reached out privately to Yepez with congratulations after the latter’s first home run in San Francisco, which was another episode in a stretch Yepez has repeatedly said has been “a dream.”

“Anytime you bring that level of production, it changes the energy,” Marmol said of Yepez. “Each at bat is personal to him. You can tell that’s a kid that’s been told for a long time that this is impossible. And he’s enjoyed and proven a lot of people wrong.”

Signed by Atlanta when he was just 16 years old, Yepez has played parts of seven seasons in the minors. Donovan has played only four, but he got there after three full years of college. Walsh spent two years in school and five, thus far, in the minors. For Robertson, it was four years of college before his five in the system.

None of those careers includes the lost 2020 season, in which none of the four played an organized game, though Robertson did spend the summer at the Cardinals’ alternate site.

‘Everything happens for a reason’

The path is long, and often unpredictably so. Donovan tore out of the gates in spring and was ticketed for a sure place in the big leagues on opening day, but with St. Louis adding Corey Dickerson and Albert Pujols after camp opened, there were two fewer available seats in the clubhouse than expected.

Those seats seemed to belong to Donovan and Yepez until they didn’t.

“I believe that everything happens for a reason,” Donovan said. “Going down to Memphis and getting some at bats and then feeling comfortable, I was swinging it well when I came up.

“And it’s a wealth of knowledge. Like, I get to sit there and I get to pick their brains to play this game for a long time. And they’ve had a lot of success.”

Early returns look strong

Thursday was Donovan’s third consecutive start at shortstop, earned in part thanks to his first career home run on Tuesday and his two-double, two-walk, two-RBI performance on Wednesday. As the Cardinals chart a path forward without DeJong as an immediate option, opportunities for another wave of reinforcements will now depend, in part, on how those who are here handle their own.

Returns in the first week have been strong.

“If you told me this, I don’t know, five years ago, I would say, ‘no, you’re lying.’” Yepez beamed.

For now, for this week, the help from Memphis is the truth.

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