After a nearly five-month layoff, Major League Baseball is finally back with games starting either July 23 or 24, depending on the team.

“I think it's just a really great day for everyone that loves baseball whether it's fans players or staff,” St. Louis Cardinals shortstop and Illinois State University baseball alumnus Paul DeJong said. “I think it just brings some hope. It is a great homecoming here in July with important meaningful games.”

After three weeks of summer training camp, DeJong and the Cardinals open on July 24 against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

Jake Sermersheim: Was there any point during the layoff that you thought there would be no season?

Paul DeJong: There was maybe a little doubt here and there, but in the end, I figured at least they could eliminate the risk as much. I figured there'd be a way to get it done; I was pretty hopeful most of the time, but it took a little longer than I expected. This season is a unique one we will remember. All this is weathering the storm and making what we have great. It would be easy to think we could have played months ago, or we could have played more games. But none of those feelings really accomplished anything, and we've got a 60-game schedule and trying to make the playoffs and win the World Series because it means that much this year to win after everything we've all gone through.

JS: How do you think summer camp went?

PD: I thought it was great. The work was good; everyone seems to be ready physically prepared and mentally. Now it's time to get back into it. I'm sure the first week will feel really different, and then after that we will kind of settle in. It felt great to play the (Kansas City) Royals yesterday (July 22) just to get some other team instead of beating up on our own guys. I'm excited to get going tomorrow (July 24) against Pittsburgh.

JS: Do you think the safety protocols will be effective in keeping players safe?

PD: I think it's on us individually and collectively to kind of limit or take risk away from the field. I think we're all making sacrifices in order to play because we realized how much playing is our goal and our livelihood and what we love to do. Most guys are doing whatever they can to adjust with their family and friends and all these other things to just stay healthy.

JS: Was there any consideration to possibly opt out this season?

PD: I want to get back on as soon as possible. It was when can we play, how many games can we play? At this stage in my career, I want to play as much as I can. You need the games, and these are my valuable years. So, there's no question I was going to play, regardless of what the scenario was.

JS: What is your biggest concern for this year?

PD: I think it will just be maintaining our focus level because it will be a sprint. We're going to have to find that fine balance. I think our biggest challenge’s going to slow everything down and be able to see the game clearly and confidently and not have to rush. I feel like we can do something extraordinary or beyond our capabilities. Really if we all stay within ourselves and stay together, I think that's our biggest strength of the group.

JS: Vegas projects the Cardinals to finish fourth in the division. Do you think that is fair after last year?

PD: After winning the division last year that feels disrespectful. We always play with our backs against the wall. Last year it took us down to the final week. We were a series win away from the World Series. I think we all took that pretty personally. Our focus level in our work has been really great in this camp. I think from the top to the bottom our lineup will be great. Our defense and pitching will continue to be great. I think we will separate ourselves from our mental focus.

JS: The Central has been tough the last couple of years, how do you think the division will play out?

PD: All of these are very similarly talented teams. It will be fun. It seems like the (Cincinnati) Reds and the (Milwaukee) Brewers have had a strong start over the last few years and kind of faded out. I think they might be a little more dangerous this year. It is important to slow things down and we play our best. It is going to be important to do the little things right. It’s not going to be the big things this year.

JS: What do you expect from yourself for the 60-game season?

PD: I just want to not give any at-bats away and stay focused on the team goals and helping our team. Working as the unit I think is going to be really important for us to do all the little things right. just because little things win games and you know there's not many games to give away this year. I think just being a good teammate and being consistent, staying healthy I think are the big focus.

JS: What is your biggest takeaway from this nearly five-month layoff?

PD: I think it just puts things into perspective for all of us. Just to be able to play after having it taken away will bring a newfound appreciation for the game.

JAKE SERMERSHEIM is a Sports Editor for The Vidette. He can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter at @JakeSermersheim

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