CHICAGO -- Jon Jay's dazzling acrobatic catch on Friday -- a catch that ranks among baseball's best this season -- is just the latest feather in the cap for the Cardinals' center fielder, who has been turning heads with his defensive play all season.
While Jay insists that he does not compare his catches, Friday's backward leap and dive to rob Anthony Rizzo of extra bases has to be at or near the top of Jay's career list. And perhaps it takes such a sensational play to earn Jay the recognition that those in the Cardinals' clubhouse have been insistent he deserves for months now.
"From what I'm seeing, I can't imagine anybody doing any better job than what he has done," manager Mike Matheny said. "He's made all the plays he should make and then made a lot that we never thought he would. He's taking charge out there. Every pitch, he's thinking, moving, directing. To me, that's one of the most valuable things. That's where I've seen him take steps -- that he's leading out there."
Especially impressive is that Jay's leadership has come primarily with veteran All-Stars -- Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran -- to each side. He's done so, too, in what is his first full season as a starter. It was at this time last year that Jay took over as the team's everyday center fielder after the Cardinals traded Colby Rasmus.
"I just go out there and try to help the team win," Jay said. "I definitely take pride in my defense. It's something that I do work on a lot. I want to be a complete player."
The numbers back up the Cardinals' claim that Jay has been one of the league's best at the position. His ultimate zone rating -- a sabermetric statistic that reflects how someone compares to an average player at that position -- of 6.3 is second best among the 14 National League players to log at least 400 innings in center field.
Jay has also yet to commit an error this season.
"This year, I think he came believing that this was his job," Matheny said. "And he wants to do it right."
Back tightness forces Furcal out of lineup
CHICAGO -- Describing his starting shortstop as "a little banged up right now," manager Mike Matheny indicated that Rafael Furcal, who sat on Saturday, will not be playing again on Sunday. The question is whether the veteran shortstop might be sidelined even longer.
Matheny specifically noted that Furcal is dealing with back tightness. Furcal, when approached following the Cardinals' 3-2 loss on Saturday, declined to answer any questions about his status, saying that he will wait to do so on Sunday. Furcal also dealt with a shin issue earlier this month.
The Cardinals knew when they re-signed Furcal during the offseason that they'd have to carefully monitor his playing time. The 34-year-old shortstop appeared in only 87 games last season while dealing with a variety of ailments. In fact, he has played 100 games in a season only once since 2007.
Nonetheless, the Cardinals have leaned on Furcal pretty hard to this point. He has started 92 of the team's 101 games and even played seven innings in the All-Star Game. It appears as if the club plans to back away from keeping up such a playing pace in order to give Furcal a better chance at being healthy through the end of the season.
Daniel Descalso, who has 11 hits in his last 30 at-bats, started at shortstop in place of Furcal on Saturday. He'll likely draw the same assignment in Sunday's series finale.
Fuentes makes strong debut with Cardinals
CHICAGO -- With the offense monopolizing the spotlight in Friday's 9-6 win over the Cubs, Brian Fuentes' organizational debut in the same game became largely a footnote. That's not to say, though, that the left-hander's effective performance went unnoticed.
Fuentes entered in relief of Lance Lynn and pitched a 1-2-3 sixth inning. Expected to be strongest in the role of a lefty specialist, Fuentes actually faced two right-handed batters in the frame. He struck out both.
The outing was Fuentes' first in the Majors since June 30, when he was still with Oakland. That was the final outing of a seven-game stretch in which Fuentes allowed 13 runs in six innings. He was released soon after.
"He's got a new life here, a new start," manager Mike Matheny said. "To me, he's got a place where I think he's going to fit in well. What he brings more than anything is deception. It's part of his gig. He does a real good job of it, maybe as good as anybody."
During the four-week span in which he did not pitch in the big leagues, Fuentes did make three appearances in the Minor Leagues. There, he was able to build back his arm strength to a point where he felt confident when called upon Friday.
"It was good to get back out there," Fuentes said. "This is obviously a very good team, all the way around. It's a real easy atmosphere to slip into."
Rotation's deep starts having positive impact on 'pen
CHICAGO -- The rotation's string of 21 consecutive starts lasting at least six innings -- the club's longest such stretch since 2004 -- ended with Lance Lynn's five-inning performance on Friday. But what the Cardinals hope continues is the positive impact that those consistently deep starts have had on the bullpen.
It's no coincidence that the bullpen's rejuvenation coincided with this stretch from the rotation, which has decreased the relievers' workload. It also allowed for roles to be better defined and for manager Mike Matheny to circumvent situations of overuse. The result: a 'pen ERA of 1.99 in July entering Saturday.
"They took a lot of heat and there was a tough run there where roles were not defined," Matheny said of his bullpen. "It all begins with starting pitching. When you overexpose these guys, they're going to get run down. Hopefully, our starters can continue to do what they've shown these last couple weeks. If so, then I'm certain our bullpen will be able to thrive."
The situation was similar in April, when starters averaged 6 1/3 innings per start and the bullpen contributed an ERA of 2.70.
David Freese remained out of the Cardinals' lineup on Saturday due to continued soreness in his right calf. The third baseman did test his leg running before Saturday's game and said he expects to start in Sunday's series finale. Freese sustained the injury during Thursday's home win over the Dodgers.
Jaime Garcia is scheduled to begin his Minor League rehab assignment with the Gulf Coast League Cardinals on Monday. Since traveling to Florida last Sunday, Garcia has thrown two sessions of live batting practice. The most recent came on Friday, when he threw two sets of 20 pitches to batters. Garcia has been on the disabled list since June 6 with a left shoulder injury. He will likely make at least three rehab starts as he builds back the necessary arm strength to rejoin the Cardinals' starting rotation.
The Cardinals used three left-handed relievers on Friday for the first time since Sept. 25, 2004, when four lefties made relief appearances in a game at Colorado.
Brandon Dickson allowed one run on six hits in a 7 2/3-inning start for Triple-A Memphis on Friday. Dickson struck out six but did not factor in the decision. Memphis scored three times in the 10th on RBI singles by Matt Adams and Eugenio Velez to earn the win.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.