Oscar Taveras

May 31, 2014: Oscar Taveras homers in his major-league debut

By the time Oscar Taveras made his major-league debut on May 31, 2014, it was almost impossible for expectations to get any higher.

More than a year earlier, St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak compared Taveras to Albert Pujols, prompting Sports Illustrated to write prior to the 2013 season that Taveras, then just 20 years old, “is the x-factor on a deep and talented St. Louis team that is loaded for another run in October.”[1]

Even an ankle injury that limited Taveras to just 47 minor league games in 2013 and postponed his promotion to St. Louis did little to dim evaluators’ excitement. Baseball Prospectus ranked Taveras the No. 2 prospect in the game prior to 2013 and No. 3 entering the 2014 season.[2] MLB.com ranked him No. 3 headed into both seasons.[3] In December 2013, Keith Law of ESPN ranked Taveras the fifth-best prospect in the game while comparing him to Vladimir Guerrero at the plate and in the field, where he gave Taveras’s glove the edge while preferring Guerrero’s legendary arm.[4]

A native of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, Taveras was an unheralded $145,000 signing for the Cardinals in 2008.[5] Two years later, in his first season in the United States, the 18-year-old hit .322 with eight home runs and 43 RBIs in 211 Appalachian League at-bats. In 2011, he placed himself on the national radar when he led the Class A Midwest League with a .386 batting average. That performance captured the attention of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.

“You play a full season and you hit .380, I don’t care if it’s tee ball, you’ve done something pretty special,” Matheny said in spring training in 2012. “To see a 19-year-old that is doing the things that he’s been able to do … it’s legitimate.”[6]

Taveras successfully made the jump to Class AA in 2012, batting .321 with 23 homers and 94 RBIs, and he was batting .306 in 2013 before ankle surgery cut short his 2013 campaign.

By the time the 2014 Cardinals entered May with a 15-14 record – already placing them 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the National League Central – fans and sportswriters were calling for Taveras to assist an ailing lineup.

“The Cardinals are willing to try anything except promote outfielder Oscar Taveras, their best hitting prospect since Albert Pujols,” wrote veteran St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz. “Any day now I expect to hear that the Cardinals have placed Taveras into a witness protection program.”[7]

Thirty days later, Taveras arrived in St. Louis, claiming the roster spot of injured first baseman Matt Adams, who was headed to the disabled list with a calf injury.[8] For his debut game against the San Francisco Giants, Matheny inserted Taveras into the sixth spot in the lineup behind Yadier Molina.

The game quickly turned into a pitcher’s duel between Cardinals 22-year-old hurler Michael Wacha and San Francisco’s Yusmeiro Petit. Petit retired the first five Cardinals he faced before Taveras came to the plate with two outs in the second inning. With storm clouds gathering, the St. Louis fans gave Tavares a standing ovation as he stepped into his first major league batter’s box.

“How good must that feel?” Fox Sports Midwest broadcaster and former Cardinals pitcher Ricky Horton asked on the air. “You don’t have a hit yet, no home runs, no runs scored, and you get a standing ovation.”[9]

Petit was less generous toward the rookie, greeting Tavares with an 84-mph breaking ball on the outside corner. Tavares fouled the next pitch down the third-base line before lifting the ball to left field and into the glove of San Francisco’s Tyler Colvin.

Wacha and Petit continued to trade scoreless innings until Taveras came to bat in the bottom of the fifth. To that point, the game’s only hits had been a double by Michael Morse to lead off the top of the second inning and a single by Matt Carpenter in the bottom of the fourth.

Taveras had just taken the first pitch of the at-bat low and inside when it began to rain. Petit’s next pitch was a curveball that started on the outer half before coming in over the middle of the plate. Using the smooth, left-handed swing that had scouts raving, Taveras deposited the ball over the right-field wall, becoming the 12th player in Cardinals history to homer in his major-league debut.[10]

“How about that for a debut?” Horton shouted into the microphone.[11]

“He’s got a good swing, you know?” Petit said afterward in a far less enthusiastic tone. “He swings hard and he pulls everything, so I tried to stay away and I missed with one pitch.”[12]

After accepting congratulations from his teammates, Taveras climbed the clubhouse steps once more and doffed his helmet for the home fans, who were still standing and cheering.

“Everybody knew it’s gone,” Taveras said after the game. “That’s a good swing right there. I’m so happy right there. Everything is happy.”[13]

As Taveras saluted the fans, the rain’s intensity increased, sending the grounds crew racing onto the field for a 47-minute rain delay. In the top of the seventh, rain delayed the action again, marking the end of the day for both Wacha and Petit. Wacha finished with seven strikeouts and three hits allowed over six innings. Petit exited with five strikeouts and just two hits allowed.

When play resumed, Cardinals left-hander Sam Freeman struck out Colvin and Brandon Hicks in a scoreless seventh. In the bottom half of the inning, the Giants turned to right-hander George Kontos, who allowed a leadoff single to Allen Craig before striking out Molina and Taveras.

As Taveras swung through an outside fastball for the third strike, Craig took off for second, sliding safely into the bag when the throw by Giants catcher Hector Sanchez skipped past shortstop Ehire Adrianza. Jhonny Peralta, who struck out in his first two at-bats, drove Craig home with a double into the left-field gap that made the score 2-0.

From there, the St. Louis bullpen maintained firm control of the game. Pat Neshek retired the side in order in the eighth inning, and in the ninth Trevor Rosenthal struck out Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval, and Morse in consecutive at-bats to earn the save.

Though the Cardinals’ four pitchers had combined for a three-hit shutout, the headlines belonged to Taveras. In the next day’s paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an infographic comparing Taveras’s first game to that of Pujols (both players went 1-for-3 in their debut, though Pujols’s hit was a single). Miklasz declared in his column that Taveras’s bat was “packed with danger and fully charged with hope. It was the bat that the Cardinals and their fans had been waiting for.”[14]

With Adams on the disabled list and a seven-game swing through two American League cities coming up, the Cardinals couldn’t help but express optimism that June would mark the beginning of a long, successful career for Tavares.

“I’m supposed to downplay it, right?” Matheny said. “We’re supposed to downplay it because we believe that it will probably give him the best chance of doing what he can do. But I’d be lying to say to you that I wasn’t excited for him. Hopefully, this is an atmosphere that can launch him to the next level.”[15]

Taveras never got that opportunity. After batting .239 with three homers and 22 RBIs in 234 regular-season at-bats, Taveras played a reserve role in the playoffs. In Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, he hit a pinch-hit home run off Giants reliever Jean Machi to help lift St. Louis to a 5-4 victory. It was the final hit of his career.

On October 26, 2014, Taveras and his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, were killed in a single-car accident on the Sosúa-Cabarete freeway in Taveras’s hometown of Puerto Plata. In November, the Dominican Republic attorney general’s office disclosed that Taveras’s toxicology report showed a blood-alcohol content of 0.287 percent and that he was driving too fast for rainy conditions when he lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a tree.[16] He was 22 years old.

“He was someone who became an identity for our organization to some degree,” Mozeliak said. “Think about how much was written about him … how much was said about him. He never really got to show it at the major-league level.”[17]

Indeed, the world never got to see whether the comparisons to Pujols and Guerrero were justified. But for one Saturday afternoon in May, Taveras’s infectious smile – and his incredible potential – were enough to cut through the rain and bring more than 44,000 baseball fans to their feet.

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[1] Albert Chen, “Well-stocked Cardinals ready to make another run,” Sports Illustrated, March 27, 2013, https://www.si.com/mlb/2013/03/27/st-louis-cardinals-season-preview.

[2] Jason Parks and Staff, “Prospects Will Break Your Heart: Top 101 Prospects,” Baseball Prospectus, January 27, 2014, https://www.baseballprospectus.com/prospects/article/22670/prospects-will-break-your-heart-top-101-prospects/.

[3] Jennifer Langosch, “Taveras ranks third among top 100 prospects,” MLB.com, January 23, 2014, https://www.mlb.com/news/oscar-taveras-of-st-louis-cardinals-third-in-top-100-prospect-rankings/c-66987862.

[4] Keith Law, “Top 100 prospects (1-50),” ESPN.com, December 19, 2013, http://insider.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/10166140/byron-buxton-tops-2014-ranking-top-100-prospects-mlb.

[5] Derrick Goold, “He’s the guy who sells,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 18, 2012: C12.

[6] Goold.

[7] Bernie Miklasz, “Birds fight back,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 2014: C4.

[8] Derrick Goold, “Taveras on the way: Grichuk already here as Cards tap minors,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 31, 2014: B5.

[9] Fox Sports Midwest game broadcast, May 31, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZX1UyDUGB0.

[10] Derrick Goold, “Taveras makes it rain with home run in debut,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 1, 2014: C1.

[11] Fox Sports Midwest game broadcast, May 31, 2014.

[12] Alex Pavlovic, “Cards prospect homers in debut,” Sacramento Bee, June 1, 2014: C6.

[13] Goold, “Taveras makes it rain with home run in debut.”

[14] Bernie Miklasz, “Rookie gets right into the swing of things,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 1, 2014: C1.

[15] Goold, “Taveras makes it rain with home run in debut.”

[16] Derrick Goold, “Taveras had high blood alcohol,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2014: A1.

[17] Joe Strauss, “Cards look for solace amid a lack of answers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 28, 2014: B1.