Dan Descalso

A Redbird to Remember

by Editor Rick Cabral

S ome pro ballplayers would give anything to have what St. Louis utilityman Daniel Descalso has earned: a World Series ring (2011) and another visit to the Fall Classic (2013).

Daniel Descalso

Plus, this season he started the front end of a triple play and pitched one-third of an inning. Not many can make that claim.

Right about now, Descalso—the former UC Davis Aggies star— would simply love to have consistent playing time at any of the three infield positions he has logged during his four-year career with the Cardinals.

But he’s realistic about his current situation with St. Louis: a bench player that gets an occasional start, defensive replacement or pinch-hit opportunity. In 2011, his rookie season, Descalso played in all but a dozen games, most of them at third base, had 326 at bats and posted a respectable .264 average.

He played in that year’s World Series, going two-for-two in one of the most thrilling Game 6’s of all time as the Cardinals were down to their last strike when David Freese tripled in two runs, and later won the game in the bottom of the 11th with a home run.

In Game 7, Descalso substituted for Freese at third base in the ninth inning when the Cardinals clinched their 11th Fall Classic, second most in major league history to the New York Yankees 27 championships.

Despite starting at shortstop three times in the 2013 World Series (won by the Red Sox), and garnering a new $1.29 million contract, when Descalso reported to camp this spring the Cardinals brought in shortstop Johnny Peralta and journeyman second baseman Mark Ellis. The handwriting was on the clubhouse wall: Descalso’s future with St. would be as a bench player.

Daniel Descalso batting in 2014.
Photo by Mathew Kirby,

The Cardinals know well that Daniel Descalso is the quintessential “team player” who accepts his role without incident and always comes to the ballpark ready to play—whatever the situation or position. “As a bench player when you do get an opportunity you’ve got to be prepared to go out there and help the team win, he says in the visitor’s dugout at AT&T Park during the Cardinals recent series in San Francisco. “Whether that’s getting a hit, getting on base, making a defensive play, or moving a runner over.”

From the bench, Descalso tries to think along with the two managers, staying a step or two ahead of the game situation, knowing his name might be called at any time. “Just try to watch the game and get into the flow, and not just sit here and be a spectator. I try to figure out how I may factor in to the game that night. Whether it’s going in on defense, or being ready for any situation that may come up

Rick Hummel, longtime columnist and Cardinals sports reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said the acquisition of Peralta and Ellis, and the promotion of second baseman rookie Kolten Wong, left Descalso the odd man out for starting time at either of the keystone positions. Hummel, elected to the writer’s wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007, noted that Descalso failed to secure a permanent position during his four years with St. Louis. The veteran sportswriter points to St. Louis’ woeful offensive production in 2014 as an opportunity for a strong hitter to insert himself somewhere in the lineup. “But it’s hard to be a good player, when you don’t play. It’s almost impossible to be successful when you’re coming off the bench,” Hummel said from the AT&T Park pressbox. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Ryan Royster, Descalso’s college teammate and current player agent for California Sports Management, observes that Dan is imbued with personality strengths that enable him to handle the situation. “He’s a (UC) Davis kid, too; not only intelligent, he’s emotionally mature.”

Cardinals outfielder John Jay, who broke in the big leagues in 2010 with Descalso, says his friend and teammate is “a total player that you need on a winning ballclub. Whenever he gets in there, he’s going do something, that may not make the box score, but is going to help win the game: defensively or getting a big hit or extending an inning.”

For instance on June 25 in Colorado, Descalso pinch hit in the pitcher’s spot in the 8th inning with St. Louis losing 6-5. He hit a bloop double down the left field line that ignited a two-run rally in the Cardinals 9-6 victory over the Rockies. He’s hitting .304 in close or late game situations, and has a team-high five pinch hits. His three pinch hit doubles are tied for second in the majors.

Despite those accomplishments, Descalso’s batting average is less than .200 (.179 as of this writing). On a club starving for offense, a return to the starting lineup is unlikely any time soon.

As Post-Dispatch writer Bernie Miklasz noted in his July 3 column, the Cardinals are at or near the bottom in the major leagues in runs scored, slugging and home runs (Peralta leads the team with 12).

Meanwhile, Descalso keeps slogging.

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The San Carlos native is the oldest of a six children. He starred at powerhouse St. Francis High as a three-year pitcher and infielder. Each fall, school alumnus and former major leaguer Eric Byrnes thrilled Descalso and his high school teammates by working out with the team. Descalso followed in Byrnes’ footsteps, earning All-Central Coast honors two years. But only UC Davis offered him a scholarship and promised an opportunity to start his freshman season. That coupled with the competition of the Big West lured Descalso to the little oasis in the Central Valley.

Starting as a freshman at third base, Descalso put up some of the best all-around numbers in the history of the program as his .397 batting average (2007), 92 hits and 22 doubles rank second all-time.

“That helped me a lot, playing every day as a freshman in the Big West, playing against Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and Cal Poly. It really helped me take that step to the next level. Couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity.” 

Daniel Descalso batting at UCD

In a UC Davis alumni magazine article, former head coach Rex Peters said Desalsco’s intangibles set him apart from other Aggies’ players. “ He has tools, but he’s not more physically gifted than a lot of players at this level,” Peters told Aggies media relations’ Mark Honbo. “He just had a determination and desire to be good, and he was probably one of the most competitive players that I’ve had the privilege of coaching.”

Descalso was named to the American Baseball Coaches Association All-West Region First Team, and selected by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2007 amateur draft, the highest ever for an Aggies, which has fielded baseball teams since 1910.

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Picked by one of the most pretigious ballclubs in baseball history, Descalso soon learned it came added pressure and responsibility. “There’s an expectation to win here,” he says. “They make that very clear from the time you come into the organization. We’re here to make the playoffs and go far in October.”

When Descalso was brought up to the big club in September 2010, he played alongside Albert Pujols and for manager Tony LaRussa, who is being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer. After La Russa led the Cardinals to their 2011 World Series win and announced his retirement that fall, St. Louis handed the reins to Mike Matheny, the former Gold Glove catcher for the Cardinals and Giants.

“(Mike’s) passion and intensity in the dugout is like when he was playing,” Descalso says. “He’s been a great transition for those of us leftover from the LaRussa squad.”

On May 12, when the Cardinals used up all the available arms in their bullpen in a 17-5 beatdown to the Cubs, Matheny summoned Descalso to the mound in the ninth inning. The former high school pitcher tossed two pitches and retired the hitter on a long flyout. “I didn’t want to hit anybody, or walk anybody,” Descalso says, not exactly relishing the moment. Although he kept a photograph commemorating his one performance on the mound in the majors.

When the Cardinals came to San Francisco this week for a three-game series, Descalso was penciled in at shortstop against the Giants’ Tim Lincecum, fresh off his second career no-hitter. Despite going 0-for-3, Descalso says he always enjoys returning to San Francisco, where he resides with his new bride and high school sweetheart Julia, and playing at the fabulous AT&T Park by the Bay. “It’s always fun coming back and sleeping in my own bed and playing in the ballpark I used to come when I was younger,” he says.

Growing up, Dan was an A’s fan as the Descalso family owned season tickets in Oakland. But his parents once won an auction prize that enabled young Dan to be the Giants batboy for a day. Barry Bonds hit a home run in that game.

“Despite it being windy and cold a lot, the atmosphere here at AT&T is great,” Descalso notes. “To sit up in the stands is one thing, but to actually be out there playing and experience it is even better.”

It’s a dream come true for the kid who grew up down the Peninsula, played for UC Davis, and has carved out a unique role with the World Series champion, St. Louis Cardinals.

Doesn’t get much better than that.

  Uploaded 7/4/14
All contents © Rick Cabral 2014
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