Dexter Fowler boosting Cardinals with style and, at last, his bat

ST. LOUIS -- Dexter Fowler walked into the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse Wednesday morning, saw a couple of reporters chatting with the team's Spanish interpreter and said, "Hi, everybody!" He flashed a wide smile, waved and kept walking.

Soon, there was a little cluster of conversation in his corner of the room, with Randal Grichuk and Greg Garcia chiming in. A room that had felt empty sprang suddenly to life. Fowler didn't seem like a man suffering through a miserable batting rut. He seemed like the happiest guy at the office, the one who knows where the good coffee is kept.

"I don't know, man. You've got to realize it's a game at the end of the day. I'm blessed to be out here playing," he said. "You take it for what it's worth. It's a blessing to be playing. You can't get that mad."

Yet the numbers don't lie. Before Wednesday, Fowler was the only Cardinal who had started all 14 of the team's games. Until his two-home-run performance in the 2-1, sweep-clinching win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had managed to go that long with zero RBIs, zero home runs, only eight hits, 16 strikeouts and a .143 batting average. His WAR to that point was minus-0.4.

It was a bad start for Fowler and a bad start for the team.

The Cardinals got home from their latest road trip with three wins, nine losses and the pressure ratcheting up just a bit on everybody, especially the centerpiece of the team's winter rebuild. The team signed Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million contract in December, hoping he could provide a lot of the things they lacked in 2016.

"Don't get me wrong -- it's tough. Especially when you're battling out there, and you're not getting what you want, and we're losing and the whole nine," he said. "But at the end of the day, like I said, it's a game, and you've just got to keep that in perspective."

His personality was already having the effect on the Cardinals' clubhouse that the team hoped it would, even as the losses mounted and his hit total didn't, but teams don't just sign happy people to deals of that kind. The smiles were nice, but hits and runs are nicer.

"For me, having fun every day is a big thing," young outfielder Jose Martinez said. "I think he has more fun than me."

Fowler's ability to stabilize the outfield defense was visible in glimpses. But his impact on the lineup had been less than minimal, as his strikeouts mounted in the leadoff hole and the walks he is known for weren't coming.

Then he took a couple of aggressive swings on good Gerrit Cole fastballs, one at 95 mph and the other at 96, and everything changed. Or, at least, that is the narrative the Cardinals can cling to as they, hopefully, begin to gain a little momentum in this 2017 season, one in which their erratic play had begun sending off alarm bells all the way up in the front office.

General manager John Mozeliak was increasingly hinting that personnel moves could be forthcoming if the defense and base running didn't improve. They haven't yet. Matt Carpenter made a silly error, and Garcia made a tough one. Carpenter got picked off first base, and Aledmys Diaz was caught stealing.

But it was a win to cap a three-game sweep of the Pirates, all by the same score: 2-1.

Nobody thought Fowler looked particularly stressed before Wednesday, and he certainly didn't afterward.

"He knows what he can do in the field. He doesn't overdo things. He just tries to stay positive and win," Martinez said. "For him to have a day like he had today is going to be a big help for us. It's going to dictate how this road trip and the next bunch of games we have."

Perhaps the real news is that, by the end of Wednesday's game, five of the Cardinals in the game were sporting the high-socks look, Fowler's style of choice. If Fowler started that revolution in fashion, it marks a major sea change for an organization whose long-pants look was invented by "Silent" George Hendrick in the late 1970s.

After the game, both Martinez and Diaz, two of the last holdouts, were vowing to give the look a try. Diaz said he'd wear his socks high Thursday night in Milwaukee.

"That's not my goal, but if high socks work, we all need to be in it," Fowler said.