By Rob Rains
It was one night, one game, set against the backdrop of a long season. For Dylan Carlson, it was another opportunity to show how far he has come this year; how all of the hard work he puts in on a daily basis has made him the Cardinals’ top prospect.
It happened to be a night when Carlson hit two home runs, increasing his league-leading total to 21. But that was only part of the story, the part that shows up in headlines and in the box score that records the fact the Springfield Cardinals beat the Arkansas Travelers 7-3 on Sunday night at Hammons Field.
What led up to those homers also is part of the story. Here is an inside look at Carlson’s Sunday, just another day in the grind that sometimes gobbles up prospects before they can survive and make it to the major leagues.
Carlson walks into the Cardinals’ clubhouse and looks for the lineup card, even though he knows he will be on it, hitting leadoff and playing center field. He has had a relaxing morning. His aunt, uncle and cousins are in Springfield on a trip from Los Angeles and the family enjoyed a late breakfast before he went back to his apartment and watched television before it was time to leave for the ballpark.
“This is the first time they have seen me play in pro ball and it was a nice little change of pace,” Carlson said. “I usually make breakfast in my apartment and then pick up Chipotle or something around here and bring it to the park and eat when I get here. I do the same thing pretty much every day but I’m flexible.
“I try not to rely too much on my routine but it’s what makes me prepared. But I know I don’t need to check off every box in order to be able to compete that night.”
What Carlson, still only 20 years old and one of the youngest players in the Texas League, has learned in just his third full season in the minor leagues is how important preparation is to his chances of being successful.
“When I went to my first spring training and then to Peoria (in 2017) I think is when the learning really started happening for me,” he said. “I kind of picked things up along the way. There are a lot of great instructors and a lot of great people in the organization. I’ve just been soaking it everything I can.”
After changing into a T-shirt and gym shorts, Carlson drinks a bottle of water and then heads into the weight room to stretch. Because this is a Sunday, the team will not be taking batting practice on the field but will be hitting in the indoor cages next to the clubhouse.
Whether hitting on the field or in the cages, Carlson’s pre-game routine remains the same. As a switch-hitter, he will take the same amount of swings right-handed and left-handed, even though tonight he knows he will be hitting right-handed against the Travelers’ left-handed starter, Justus Sheffield.
As Carlson and his teammates start preparing for the game, the Cardinals’ game against the Pirates is on the clubhouse television. No one is really glued to the television, until Junior Fernandez comes on in relief to make his major-league debut.
As recently as June 25, Fernandez was a part of this team, pitching in Springfield. The players are now standing or sitting in front of the television, including Carlson, and a loud cheer erupts when Fernandez records his first career strike out. Another round of applause fills the room when Fernandez is lifted from the game after pitching two-thirds of an inning.
Carlson gets up from his chair and heads toward the batting cages, where he works primarily with the team’s hitting coach, Brandon Allen, and the “fourth” coach, Nick Longmire. During this homestand, George Greer, one of the organization’s top hitting instructors, also is in town.
Greer has worked with Carlson since he was drafted out of Elk Grove, Calif., High School in 2016.
“He’s learning, he’s getting better,” Greer said. “He’s honing his craft. He goes about his business every day and knows what he has to do and how to make little adjustments pitch to pitch, at bat to at bat and game to game.”
Minor-league field coordinator Mark DeJohn also happens to be in town. He has been with Carlson during his progression through the minor leagues and has witnessed the improvement in his game.
“He’s gotten bigger and stronger,” DeJohn said. “At 20, in today’s game, it really is hard to evaluate what a guy is going to become. But this year it seems like he has kind of turned the corner. He started the year going to big league camp and that seemed to bring out more of his talents. He soaked it all in and for the first time in his career he really has played above the league average. He’s a well-grounded kid. He’s smart, he’s got a good attitude and he wants to be the best he can be.
“He’s got a lot of expectations on his shoulders and probably at this point he should just play. He’s a baseball player. Sometimes a guy can have talent but it’s about how he handles those expectations. He is expected to be a guy that when he gets to the major leagues can impact a lineup. He’s still got a way to go before he gets there.”
Carlson is not immune to the expectations. He has his own ideas of what he wants out of his career, but he also is smart enough to realize that what DeJohn says is true: He can’t control what others say and think about him.
“I focus on the things I can control,” Carlson said, “my attitude, my preparation, my work ethic. All of those things go into it. I try to stay consistent on those things and just go out and play. It’s a long season. I try to not get too attached to the results. I try to stick with the process and try to get better every day.”
That’s the focus of his pre-game swings in the batting cages. Pleased with how he swings the bat, Carlson returns to the clubhouse to put on his uniform and head to the field.
Because there are only eight teams in the Texas League, teams face each other frequently. The Cardinals play their three North Division rivals – Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas and Tulsa – 83 times in the 139-game season.
“By this point in the season teams know everything about us and we know everything about them,” Carlson said. “At this point it’s about executing and trying to take advantage of what the game gives you.”
Carlson has refreshed his memories of facing Sheffield, ranked by MLB.com as the Mariners’ ninth-best prospect. Sheffield has started three times against the Cardinals since July 4, and Carlson has gone hitless in nine at-bats with five strikeouts.
“I hit some balls hard off him before but just no luck,” Carlson said. “He’s really good and he mixes his pitches well. If you want to be the best you’ve got to be able to do it against anyone. He’s working on something; I’m working on something. Someone’s got to win. It’s competition, and I love the competition.”
Carlson fouls the first pitch down the left field line then takes three consecutive balls. Not wanting to walk him, Sheffield challenges Carlson, and he responds with a home run to the opposite field.
“I was lucky enough to get in a plus count and was able to get off a good swing,” Carlson said. “Luckily the results came with it.”
The home run is the 20th of the season for Carlson, a number he had put in his head before the season began that he thought was a realistic target.
Of all of the homers, perhaps the one which stands out the most was the one he hit on April 9 in Tulsa, his second of the season. It came against a rehabbing Clayton Kershaw, who had retired him on a ground ball to short and a fly to right in his first two at-bats that night. Both he and teammate Kramer Robertson homered in the sixth inning.
“It was just a real honor to be in the lineup that night and face him,” Carlson said. “Luckily I was able to get a pitch to hit and did some damage. That will be a moment I will always remember.”
Springfield manager Joe Kruzel has had a lot of moments to remember from this season watching Carlson, who began the year usually hitting second in the lineup.
“One day (in late May) I was talking to him in the outfield during batting practice and I just asked him where he liked to bat in the order,” Kruzel said. “We were just kibitzing around and he said he would hit wherever I wanted, which is the common answer. I asked if he had a choice, and he said, ‘I love leading off.’ I said ‘OK, we will run with it.’
“He’s a guy who can get on base, he has the ability to steal bases but he’s also a guy who has the ability to inject some power into that spot. It just worked out for us. I really enjoy him in that spot. He can do a lot of different things from that position.
“I remember a night in Amarillo he fell behind in the count and then hit a line drive off the batter’s eye in center field. He never looks like he’s in trouble in the batter’s box. There may be times when he doesn’t have success but he never looks like he’s in trouble or is taking defensive type swings.”
That consistency is reflected by the fact that the longest stretch Carlson has gone through this season without getting at least one hit is three games.
“Even when he’s so called ‘not going good’ he is still doing something that will give your team an opportunity to win,” Kruzel said. “He might run a ball down in the outfield; he might steal a base or might move up on a ball in the dirt. It always seems like there is something he’s capable of doing at any moment in a game to help the team win.”
Sheffield has won the next two battles against Carlson, striking him out in the third inning before getting him to hit a grounder to short on a 2-0 changeup in the fifth. Sheffield’s night is over, and the game is tied 3-3 and left-hander Matt Tenuta is now pitching for Arkansas in the seventh.
Kruzel offers another reason that separates Carlson from many minor-league players, especially among those who are still so young. It’s another example of Carlson’s focus and his preparation.
“If you sit with him in the dugout as the pitcher comes in from the bullpen and is warming up he already will have an idea of what the guy does,” Kruzel said. “He studies; he really pays attention to the details of the game. Sometimes when we are having our pre-game ‘ball talk’ which we call ‘stitches’ he will add some stuff about pitchers and talk about their moves or whatever. He will always have some insight. I remember one time he talked about facing a guy when he was in Peoria that had stuck in his mind.”
Said Carlson, “I like being prepared. That’s part of my game, part of my personality. As I see a guy warming up I kind of run through the pitches I see that he has and remember how he pitched me the last time, how he’s gotten me out before; what I’ve done well off of him. Those are the things that immediately go into my head.
“If I get on base, I already have thought about his times to the plate and how often he throws over; who is hitting behind me, what he likes throwing in certain counts so I can get the best jump and potentially find a way to get to the next base.”
Carlson gets ahead 2-1 in the count against Tenuta before hammering a ball down the left field line. The ball appears to hit the glove of the left fielder and then hit the foul pole, making it a home run. The third base umpire calls it a double, saying the ball went out of play in foul territory, keeping it from being a home run.
Kruzel and the Cardinals argue but after the three umpires huddle, the judgment call stands. There are no video review challenges in Double A.
“I was running so I didn’t get too good of a look,” Carlson said. “You can’t complain about a double.”
It’s Carlson’s 24th double of the year and his 50th extra-base hit, the most in the league.
“I don’t try to look at stats too much,” Carlson said. “I go more off the feeling. If I’m feeling good and balls are falling then I don’t really check. If things are going bad I don’t really feel the need to check either. I try not to get too caught up in the results.
“For me personally it’s about the process. If I’m lining out four times a game it’s tough to be mad about that. There’s nothing really you can do.”
Carlson believes a big part of his mental outlook on the game comes from his mother, Caryn, who survived breast cancer but is now confined to a wheelchair because of a neurological disease.
“With all the things she has encountered in her life, she is still always positive,” Carlson said. “I have always been around that and it makes me grateful I even get to play baseball. I’m really honored to be out here playing every night but there are things for me outside of baseball too.”
A three-run homer by the Cardinals’ ninth-place hitter, Irving Lopez, has broken the tie in the eighth inning. Carlson high-fives his three teammates as they cross home place.
Now pitching for Arkansas is right-hander Joey Gerber, who has just allowed his first professional home run in 65 career innings spread across the last two seasons.
Carlson turns around to bat left-handed for the first time in the game and takes ball one.
“He started me off with a slider so I knew he was coming with the heater, and he throws in the upper 90s,” Carlson said. “Luckily it found the barrell of the bat.”
The ball shoots over the wall in right center for Carlson’s second homer of the game, his 21st of the season, and the second career homer allowed by Gerber. Carlson said he did not think he had ever homered from each side of the plate in the same game before but his dad Jeff remembered him doing it once. He was 11 at the time, playing in Little League.
“I’m glad I got to witness it,” Kruzel said. “It was a big night for us. It was good to see.”
It was probably fitting Carlson hit the second home run, knowing it could have been a three-homer night if the call in the seventh had gone the other way.
“The baseball Gods took care of me,” he said.
The 21 homers are the most hit by a player at the age of 20 at Double A for the Cardinals since the late Oscar Taveras hit 23 in Springfield in 2012.
DeJohn was a big fan of Taveras. He also remembers a young prospect coming through the system, Colby Rasmus. It’s a reflection of Carlson’s ability, and promise, that those are the names mentioned in the same conversation.
“His strength is going to end up being his bat,” DeJohn said of Carlson. “It will be interesting to see how his career turns out.”
The game has been over for almost half an hour, and Carlson is back in the clubhouse after signing a few autographs on his way off the field. He is eager to get to the post-game spread in the team’s lounge. The minor league players always look forward to it when a major-leaguer is in town on a rehab assignment, because they know the post-game meal is going to be better than usual.
Tonight, Yadier Molina is completing his short stay in Springfield and he is treating the team to steak and lobster.
Carlson knows he will enjoy the meal, then will take a quick shower and head back to his apartment to sleep. The pursuit of a playoff spot, with the Cardinals trying to chase down Tulsa and Arkansas, will resume tomorrow.
The bus to Tulsa will leave at 9:45 a.m.
“It’s all part of it,” Carlson said.
It’s part of why Carlson has risen to the top of the prospect ranks, one of the reasons he also will represent the organization in the Arizona Fall League when this minor-league season is over. It’s also why Carlson, and the Cardinals, know where he ultimately is headed.
“For me he’s a big-league player,” Greer said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
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Photos by Mark Harrell/Springfield Cardinals