ATLANTA — In the same way that winning has the ability to cover up the blemishes of a baseball team, losing manages to make every wart seem like a DEFCON 1-level crisis.
When it comes to the performance of Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals have experienced both sides of that story thus far in the 2019. When St. Louis surged to win nine out of ten from April 20 to May 1, nobody really noticed Carpenter’s .171/.356/.171 batting line out of the leadoff spot during that stretch.
The rest of the lineup was coming up with clutch hits, the starters were consistently putting the team in position to win and the bullpen rarely wavered in locking things down. So what if Carpenter was having a rough go of things? If the wins kept piling up, what’s the problem? Surely, he’d turn things around.
It only took one clunker of a weekend at Wrigley for that optimistic narrative to shift.
Even though Carpenter actually put together a pretty solid series, going 5-for-14 (.357) at the plate, the wins decidedly did not keep piling up. The Cubs swept the Cardinals. Suddenly, everything was under a microscope, because the team wasn’t winning anymore.
Carpenter reverted back to disappointing production following that Chicago series, and because the team kept losing, his struggles were no longer being overlooked. Out of his prominent slot in the lineup, Carpenter slashed .130/.286/.261 as St. Louis followed up that Cubs series with two more series losses heading into this week’s match-up with Atlanta, leading to natural questions about Carpenter’s status atop the Cardinals lineup moving forward.
"He's got the right approach for it,” Mike Shildt said of Carpenter batting leadoff, the Cardinals manager expressing trust in the player Tuesday afternoon at SunTrust Park. “He’s an All-Star-caliber, MVP-caliber player, so he understands what that looks like. I think we all do, we want to see the results, including him, be more consistent."
Perhaps Shildt was right not to overreact, and a new run of the right kind of consistency for Carpenter began Tuesday night, as the veteran did his part in an offensive onslaught that led the Cardinals to a 14-3 win over the Braves. Though Carpenter didn't notch any of the team's four home runs on the night, he went 1-5 with a walk, a double and a run scored—a modest but positive step in the right direction. Carpenter set the appropriate tone for a leadoff man, opening the game by working a full-count walk against Mike Foltynewicz, and later scoring on a Marcell Ozuna three-run blast.
“That's what he is,” Shildt said of Carpenter’s approach, which the manager believes has been consistently strong even through recent struggles. “That's who he is. That's his identity, the type of hitter he is. He drove the ball into left, which is a good sign for him. Not that he's got to hit the ball to left, but you know, using the whole field, staying on the baseball, working counts, deep counts. That's a good sign for him, and us.”
Though Carpenter did get things moving in the right direction early Tuesday, it’s hard to argue his day—or another other individual player’s day, for that matter—was the singular difference in a game where the Cardinals hit three three-run home runs and at once point led 11-0.
But for every 14-run or 17-run barrage the Cardinals have posted the last couple weeks, there has been thrice as many stinkers, days where the offense gets shut out or scores just a single run. Though 14 runs might come easily the one day, it’s whether the Cardinals find ways to scrape across four or five rather than one or two on those nights when the bats aren’t clicking that will determine how far the team makes it this season.
It’s in those games that the Cardinals rely on their leadoff man for a spark. While Carpenter proved just last season his capability to put a team on his back and carry it for weeks at a time, 2018’s accomplishments don’t carry much water in May 2019, approximately one year removed from the torrid stretch that sent Carpenter into the mid-season MVP conversation a season ago.
So while Shildt maintains Carpenter's current approach holds the same prowess that made him look like Captain Marvel from May 16 to basically the end of August last season, is it possible he would consider shaking things up, anyway? Dexter Fowler, who homered Tuesday, has increased his OBP for the season to .421. With numbers like that, he wouldn’t be a bad choice for a stint at leadoff, a spot with which he grew familiar previously in his career.
Though he says the team always keeps an open mind with regard to things of this nature, Shildt doesn’t see the need to do anything dramatic with the lineup.
“Not at the moment,” he said before Tuesday’s game—before Carpenter’s solid night at the dish—adding that it wasn't based on any preference or request from Carpenter.
“He’s always agreeable to hit anywhere in the lineup,” Shildt said of Carpenter. “It’s just, he’s had such a proven success in that spot.”
After the team came together so splendidly to punish Foltynewicz and the Atlanta bullpen thereafter, you wouldn’t dream of changing a thing right now, of course. It might even be tough for defensive stalwart Harrison Bader to wedge his way into many lineups if the Redbirds keep things rolling like they did Tuesday.
But the devil’s in the details. Postseason berths are in the close games you steal, the losses you flip to wins with clutch play in all phases. History suggests a hot stretch for Carpenter is just around the corner. The Cardinals are hoping Tuesday was the night he began turning that corner for good.
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