Matt Adams is finding his groove with the Cardinals

Matt Adams has started 30 of the St. Louis Cardinals' last 36 games at first base, batting .336 with a .998 OPS, eight homers and 30 RBIs. AP Photo/Michael Thomas

ST. LOUIS -- Matt Adams knew he could do so much more. He knew he could hit as well as, if not better than, the players who were getting all the attention. As opportunities arose, he kept getting passed over.

"I was kind of upset a little bit," Adams said.

That was seven years ago. The St. Louis Cardinals finally got around to picking Adams with their 23rd-round pick in the 2009 draft, after 698 players had gone ahead of him. The Pittsburgh area is known for developing quarterbacks, but it's not exactly an incubator for Major League Baseball talent. Also, Adams attended a small high school and a Division II college, Slippery Rock. He was the third player to come out of Slippery Rock and reach the major leagues.

The previous one, Bob Shawkey, retired in 1927.

"Once my name got called, I just wanted to go in there and play," Adams said. "When you're taken in the later rounds, you have to produce, and I wanted to go in there with a chip on my shoulder and show them I can play with the top-tier college and high school guys."

Adams is a good illustration of the major league draft's fickleness and a good illustration of the fight-back mentality that a player can have when being picked late. It's still working for him. In late April, Adams had started just six of the Cardinals' first 21 games, and he was batting .229. He believed in the swing change he had made near the end of the previous season, though. He just needed one more tweak to make it click. After studying video of his 2013 and 2014 at-bats and speaking with hitting coach John Mabry, Adams tried something.

He simply closed his stance, squaring his back with the edge of the batter's box. Suddenly, he could see the ball longer and he wasn't stepping toward the first-base dugout when he swung, no longer relying on a pitch being in a certain location so he could get under it and pull it.

Then, things started happening. Adams forced his own opportunity, just as he had done as a junior at Slippery Rock when he broke the school record by batting .495.

He has started 29 of the Cardinals' past 36 games at first base, batting .342 with a 1.010 OPS, eight homers and 30 RBIs in the span. Adams should have the requisite at-bats to qualify among the league leaders in a matter of days.

The Cardinals think this stretch of scorching play might be more representative of the player Adams is than last season, when he dealt with a quadriceps injury, batted .240 and hit just five home runs. He eventually tore the muscle and missed more than 100 games.

"Last year, he didn't get a fair shake because he was busted and people jumped on him when he was hurt," Mabry said. "One of the biggest things is using your core and hips to hit and he couldn't because he was busted. When you have the ability to come back from that and you start to have confidence, it's fun watching who he's becoming."

In 2002, Mabry was traded from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Oakland A's in exchange for Jeremy Giambi, the younger brother of 2001 American League MVP Jason Giambi, who by then had signed with the New York Yankees. Mabry is reminded at times of a young Jason Giambi when he watches Adams hit. They have similar hulking builds, similar upright stances and an ability to pummel baseballs wherever they are pitched.

"Top-end, that may be where he can get to," Mabry said. "He can be that type of guy."

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny typically chooses between Adams and Brandon Moss to play first. It is a more stark decision than it may at first appear. Where Moss admittedly has sold out the ability to bat for a high average in order to pull more balls for home runs, Adams has aspired to being a pure hitter, someone who can reach more pitches, sometimes driving them to left field.

"In general hitting philosophy, you're staying back and letting the ball reach you," Matheny said. "When you do that, you're less susceptible to breaking balls that are moving away from you off-speed. That's pretty basic hitting, but some guys have a lot of success going for broke and trying to yank the ball out of the yard."

"A more well-rounded approach, if you watch guys considered MVPs and year-in, year-out good hitters, is to use the whole field."

In late April, Moss pulled Adams aside to tell him what he thought he was capable of becoming, a consistent No. 3 or No. 4 hitter in a championship-caliber lineup.

"When I look at him, I see him as being capable of doing what he's doing," Moss said. "He covers the zone with his bat, he doesn't strike out a ton and he's got some power."

Adams, whom his teammates call "Big City," lives in State College, Pennsylvania, these days, but he has the blue-collar demeanor that people associate with the Steel City. He credits his parents for giving him the drive that allowed him to overcome a lack of scouting exposure to get where he is.

As usual, it's easier to get there than stay there. That doesn't mean it was easy to get there.