Matt Adams making a big impression
But finding at-bats for unheralded Cardinals slugger is an 'incredible challenge'
St. Louis first baseman Matt Adams had a novel way of capturing the boss' attention in spring training. The Cardinals' executive offices sit behind the outfield fence at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., and Adams mashed a ball one day that dented the wall outside general manager John Mozeliak's window. The next morning, Mozeliak allegedly came down to the clubhouse and told Adams, "Stop breaking our building."
Mozeliak confirmed the story in an email to ESPN.com. But he insists he was only joking.
"Of course I was kidding," Mozeliak said. "He can hit it all day!"
With or without anyone's permission, Adams has a knack for frightening pitchers and threatening edifices in a Paul Bunyan sort of way. He pounded the ball all the way through the Cardinals' minor league system, and now he's making a big impression in sporadic at-bats with the big club.
Adams is hitting .524 (11-for-21) with a 1.048 slugging percentage in seven games this season. According to ESPN's Home Run Tracker, his three homers have traveled an average of 418 feet, so wall scrapers aren't in his arsenal.
To this point, Adams' biggest challenge has been getting on the field. With Allen Craig slated to assume the bulk of the first-base at-bats in St. Louis, Adams probably will have to settle for two starts a week against assorted right-handed pitchers. The Cardinals prefer that course of action to sending him back to their Memphis farm club because, as manager Mike Matheny points out, Adams "has nothing more to prove in Triple-A."
Adams, 24, is an inspirational story because of his modest beginnings. He grew up in the central Pennsylvania town of Philipsburg (population: 2,770), about 20 minutes from Penn State University. His father, Jamie, is a parts manager for a bus company at the college, and his mother, Lisa, is a dental assistant. Philipsburg is also the birthplace of Jon Condo, a Pro Bowl long snapper for the Oakland Raiders.
Cold, short and wet springs limited Adams to roughly 25 games a year at Philipsburg-Osceola Area High School, and scouts rarely appeared at the team's games. Adams attracted mild interest from the University of Pittsburgh and a junior college or two in New Jersey, but when those options failed to pan out, he had to scramble for a Plan C. With the help of his high school coach, Adams landed at Slippery Rock University, about 50 minutes north of Pittsburgh. He made his mark by winning the NCAA Division II batting championship with a .495 average as a junior in 2009.
Adams is one of many draft success stories from the regime of Jeff Luhnow, who ran the Cardinals' scouting operation for several years before leaving to become the GM in Houston. The Cardinals selected Adams as a catcher in the 23rd round of the 2009 draft and signed him to a $25,000 bonus. Three years later, he was in the big leagues.
When Lance Berkman went on the disabled list with a knee injury last May, the Cardinals summoned Adams from Memphis and he went 2-for-4 against Chad Billingsley and the Dodgers on "Sunday Night Baseball" in his debut.
Adams stands 6-foot-3 and 258 pounds, about 17 pounds lighter than last season after a rigorous winter of working out and eating right. But the Cardinals and some talent evaluators think he has a chance to be more than just a big, lumbering bopper. A scout who saw Adams in the Grapefruit League assessed his setup and swing mechanics and likened him to a young Jason Giambi.
"He's got a pretty quiet approach at the plate," Matheny said. "You see him take a lot of borderline pitches, and there's not a lot of wasted movement. He has compact power for a big guy. The ball really carries off his bat."
Matheny calls it an "incredible challenge" to find at-bats for Adams given the depth of the St. Louis lineup, but you'll never find Adams griping about playing time. If his name isn't on the lineup card, he dutifully gets in his work in the weight room and the batting cage. He also spends a lot of time breaking down video of relief pitchers he might be facing in a pinch-hitting role.
As a classic long shot-done-good, Adams is happy to raise spirits while simultaneously breaking buildings. When a fellow Philipsburg native named Drew Bryan called him for advice after a challenging freshman year at Virginia Military Institute, Adams reflected on his personal experiences as a way to provide guidance and encouragement.
"I told him, 'Continue to work hard, because you never know what can happen,' " Adams said. "I never thought I would be where I am today. But it was a dream of mine, and I kept working hard to give it the best shot I could to reach that dream."
Even some of Adams' veteran teammates can't help but be inspired by the route he has taken. As a humble, earnest, hard-working product of Pennsylvania football and wrestling country, he has a tale of perseverance that resonates throughout the clubhouse.
"That's what's cool about baseball," said Cardinals third baseman David Freese. "It kind of defines the uniqueness of this game. Anybody can come out of anywhere and do special things. I think Matt is on the verge of doing that. It starts with his character and flows right into his work ethic and talent. He's soft-spoken and loves this game and loves being around everybody. That's simply stated, but that's how it is."
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