ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The string of injuries plaguing the Cardinals down the final stretch of the first half grew longer Wednesday, as Matt Carpenter left the game early with a strained right oblique muscle.
Just hours after they placed backup catcher Brayan Pena on the disabled list with knee inflammation, St. Louis watched as their MVP tried to check his swing on a 3-1 pitch from Jeff Locke in the bottom of the third inning and pulled up grabbing his side.
Carpenter grimaced and stepped away from the plate, drawing the trainers out of the dugout. Moments later he walked off the field, replaced by Kolten Wong.
“I know what he grabbed and where he was feeling it. I had to get him off the field,” Mike Matheny said after the game.
Carpenter was in an off-site MRI machine while Matheny was addressing the press, so the Cardinals had yet to determine the severity of the injury. However, the manager didn’t sound optimistic.
“I have a high level of concern. I’ve felt that injury and I’ve seen it. It can be tough,” Matheny said.
Carpenter has felt it before as well. In 2012, he missed a month of the season with the same injury.
The 30-year-old will likely enter the company of Pena and Brandon Moss (leading the team with 17 home runs) as players added to the disabled list this week and his loss would be a crippling blow to a team struggling to find consistency.
As of Wednesday, Carpenter led the National League in OPS (.988) and on base percentage (.420) and has been the best leadoff hitter in the NL over the past month and a half.
“You see what the guy does out there every single day. He performs. He does what he needs to do. He’s a professional and he’s one of those guys where you can count on him to come up in big situations and do a job. It’s tough to lose someone of his stature,” Wong said. “You hope and pray that it’s not that bad.”
Since late May, Carpenter has been the most reliable hitter on a mercurial offense.
Prior to him leaving the game, the Cardinals had put up 429 runs, second most in the NL. But they have 35 games of six runs or more and 32 games of three runs or less. That lack of reliable scoring is a large part of why the team has hovered around .500 all season and made little-to-no progress on catching the Cubs in the Central.
Carpenter has served as a rallying point in a lineup that has oftentimes looked lost just 24 hours after seeming unstoppable.
“This guy to me is one of the most consistent players I’ve been around,” Mike Matheny said Tuesday when assessing his lone All-Star. “The way he goes about his at bats. Sometimes the results are there, sometimes the results don’t tell the whole story about how a guy goes about his business.”
Carpenter’s 53 RBIs account for 12 percent of St. Louis’ runs. His wRC+ (an in-depth statistical measure of how good a batter is at creating runs) is 164. The league average is 100, and no one in the National League has a higher mark.
He walks as much as he strikes out (58 BBs, 60 Ks), gets on base better than anyone in the league, leads all NL leadoff hitters in RBIs and is tied for the lead in leadoff homers with 14.
Quite simply, losing Carpenter for an extended period of time is a critical wound to an offense that doesn’t appear able to bear it.
Matheny takes umbrage with that notion, pointing to the team’s ability to weather crucial injuries last season and a depth of potential offensive talent in 2016 as reasons not to hit the panic button.
“If we sit there and over-analyze the fact ‘this guy plays a particular role for our club’ or somebody tells us it’s a shot we can’t recover from, that’s not true. That’s simply not true,” he said. “I know we have guys that can jump in and do it … We’re going to have guys go down. You never want to see it happen, you want to get them back as quick as you can, but when it happens somebody has to step up.”
Given the lingering nature of oblique strains and the fact the injury is on Carpenter’s front side at the plate (the torque and twist put on his right oblique when he swings would be tremendously painful and possibly expose him to further injury), it’s a fair assumption the “next man up” will face a prolonged test.
That figures to be Wong, who is the best natural second baseman on the team.
While the Hawaiian’s defense is superior to that of his 30-year-old counterpart, there isn’t a bat in St. Louis that can fill the void left by Carpenter at the top of the lineup. There are only a handful of bats in the game that could. Barring a blockbuster deal at the deadline, there isn’t a replacement coming. The Cardinals, whose guns seem to jam as often as they fire true, will have to find ways to win battles without their best weapon.