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Carpenter's ascension helping Cardinals fly

Carpenter's ascension helping Cardinals fly

Carpenter's ascension helping Cardinals fly

ST. LOUIS -- It is one of the go-to stories for Rick Carpenter, the tale he believes best illustrates the baseball instincts that have since become the foundation of his son's emergence as one of the league's breakout stars of 2013.

Matt Carpenter had just learned how to walk, Rick said, when he waddled over to the family's sliding glass door, lifted the security stick from the ground and set it on a shoulder as if to imitate a hitter. This was before his father had played a loose game of catch with him.

"I got up immediately, went to Walmart and picked up a T-ball set," Rick Carpenter continued. "And then he started hitting like he knew what he was doing."

By the age of 5, Matt Carpenter was adjusting in the infield based on where he thought the batter would put the ball in play. When he watched his father coach at the high school level, he'd sit with his mother and pick apart defensive positioning. Carpenter absorbed the game as a coach's son, a perspective that later prepared him for the challenges of changing spots in the field and on the lineup card.

Drafted as a third baseman, Carpenter now shines at second. Once recruited to college as a middle-of-the-order bat, Carpenter is posting a standout season as a leadoff hitter. He has filled two of the Cardinals' most glaring voids not just seamlessly, but exceptionally.

"Honestly, I think the reason that I've been able to do those things is because I consider myself a baseball player," Carpenter said. "I don't think I've ever really labeled myself as something more specific than that. I feel like I'm pretty adaptable and can move around and can play more than one position. I think a lot of it is just growing up around baseball and being at the field all my life.

"I always heard my dad telling players how to play a certain position, because I was around him all the time. Now it all comes second nature."

MVP candidacy

For weeks, there has been the expectation that a Cardinals player would make a serious run for the National League Most Valuable Player Award. Support has been swelling for catcher Yadier Molina, whose ability to match his extraordinary defensive prowess with a complete offensive game has vaulted him to among game's elite.

Carpenter's candidacy, however, should not be overshadowed by his teammate's established reputation.

In his first full season as a Major League starter, Carpenter has learned a new position and taken on a new offensive role, doing both while posting one of the most impressive campaigns in recent Cards history.

Carpenter enters the season's final two weeks leading the league in hits (183), runs scored (116), doubles (50) and multihit games (58). He's batting .404 with runners in scoring position and .319 -- fifth best in the league -- overall. There are 16 three-hit games on his season resume, and with a WAR of 6.1, Carpenter tops his team in that statistic. The figure ranks fourth among all NL position players.

"You just look at what Matt has accomplished this year, especially a guy that just never had the route paved for him, and what he's been able to overcome and the things that he's been able to do just purely by will and hard work and talent, obviously," manager Mike Matheny said. "It's got to be very rewarding for him. It's paying off because of the way he's going about it. He's won over the respect and admiration of the league, the fans and absolutely the clubhouse."

Carpenter has a shot at a 200-hit season, something no Cardinals player has accomplished since Albert Pujols in 2003. Right now, Carpenter is on pace to finish with 199. He also joins Pujols as the most recent St. Louis players to tally 50 doubles. With two more, Carpenter would have more this season than Pujols did in any of his 11 with St. Louis.

Even a Busch Stadium III record has fallen, as Carpenter stands as the only player to have 100 hits there in a season. He has tied Scott Rolen's ballpark record of 29 doubles as well.

"He always had a good approach at the plate," said Jim Schlossnagle, Carpenter's head coach at Texas Christian University. "He didn't swing at bad pitches. It was frustrating at the time, because we wanted him to be a run producer, not a table-setter. We thought he was going to drive the ball out of the park. But he was always the opposite. He would get on base, he could draw walks. He could steal bases because he had good instincts. He always had good instincts."

Adding to the accomplishment is the context behind it all.

It was only a little more than seven months ago that Carpenter reported to Spring Training uncertain if there would be a starting job available to him. He had just finished his second straight winter of near-daily work and had to prove himself a capable second baseman. Daniel Descalso was in the mix for the same playing time.

Heading into 2012, Carpenter had wanted to show that he's versatile, expecting that there would be little opportunity at third base. At the end of that season, he surveyed the roster complexion again and knew second base could be his opening.

Carpenter started the crash course at the new position just two days after the Cardinals were eliminated in the NL Championship Series.

"I just looked at our team and I said, 'OK, if I'm going to get to play, this is the only chance I have,'" Carpenter said. "It went back to that mentality I started in college and that work ethic -- that if I'm going to do this, I'm not just going to do this to get comfortable over there. I'm going to do this to win this job."

Carpenter did that with relative ease and has since started more games (141) than anyone else on the club.

From the top

Carpenter's move to the top spot in the lineup came on April 18. It also came out of necessity.

The Cards had lost their preferred leadoff hitter, Rafael Furcal, to injury during Spring Training. Jon Jay was pegged as the next-best option until his sluggish start precluded him from being on base enough to spark the club.

Matheny turned next to Carpenter, whose patience and propensity for extended at-bats -- he's averaging more than four pitches per plate appearance -- made him an intriguing candidate in the search for a table-setter. Necessity no longer dictates Carpenter's placement in the lineup, because it almost immediately became a natural fit.

Carpenter is not among the game's fastest, nor is he much of a threat to steal. But atop a lineup that has a parade of run producers, he is the ideal fit.

"I definitely think that I am your new modern-thinking leadoff hitter," Carpenter said. "From the time that stats were recorded on me, I've always had a high on-base percentage. I had hit leadoff before, but it was always in a pinch, for a change of pace during the season. It was never over the course of the season, so I had never been able to see how it would flourish or work out. It's been fun. I love it. Especially with this team, because I know if I can just get on base, I have a chance to score. And if I can get to second, I have a really good chance to score."

It's difficult to find someone who has done more from the leadoff spot this season.

Carpenter's on-base percentage (.390) trails only Cincinnati's Shin-Soo Choo among leadoff hitters. He has 57 extra-base hits from the leadoff spot, the most by a Cardinal since Garry Templeton had 60 in 1979. Carpenter is first in the Majors with 63 RBIs as a leadoff man and ranks second with a .325 batting average from the spot.

Carpenter is the Major League leader in runs scored by a margin of 12 and is the Majors' first player since Boston's Dustin Pedroia in 2008 to have 50 doubles, 115 runs scored and 180 hits in a season from any spot in the batting order.

That's a feat previously accomplished only 35 times in Major League history. The company is especially limited when considering only Cardinals: Pujols, Stan Musial, Joe Medwick and now Carpenter.

"He has definitely filled a huge void that we had, and when he goes, our offense goes," Matheny said. "Not to put all the pressure on him. We can [win] on days when he doesn't [hit]. But you've seen the days when he's all over the bases, things happen."

The Cards are 60-23 this season when Carpenter scores at least one run.

"He has always been a good candidate for the leadoff position," Rick Carpenter said. "He's not the prototypical player, because he's not a burner. But Matt plays fast, because he gets good jumps and reads the ball off the bat well. That makes up for not being the burner. It fits."

The defensive fit

The Cardinals initiated the defensive change for Carpenter due to their desire to have his bat in the lineup. The unexpected byproduct has been the actual defense.

Carpenter has been much more than a placeholder at second base, a position at which he had 18 innings of experience prior to this season. His range is plenty sufficient, and his anticipation has improved. The double-play turns -- which created the steepest learning curve -- come naturally now.

There is a growing highlight reel, too, topped by the pair of plays Carpenter made on Friday. Those two diving stops helped set up an eventual 2-1 victory and led Mariners manager Eric Wedge to remark afterward that while he hadn't previously seen much of Carpenter, "It's obvious he's a heckuva player."

The competency at the position is hardly the result of chance. Carpenter took few days off over the winter, instead immersing himself in defensive work at second. When he wasn't on the field, he was watching the catalog of double-play turns that infield coach Jose Oquendo had loaded onto an iPad.

Two weeks before position players were required to report to Spring Training, Carpenter was at the Cards' Florida complex for daily one-on-one tutoring with Oquendo. Carpenter received additional guidance from Descalso and took long-distance advice from Skip Schumaker, who had made the second-base conversion a few years earlier.

By June, Matheny was no longer moving Carpenter to third base when David Freese sat. Instead, Descalso would slide there; Carpenter remained the choice second baseman.

"The second-base thing, it doesn't surprise me, because I know how hard he's going to work at it," Schlossnagle said. "But it's such a tough position. There are so many nuances at that position that are tough to learn. For a corner infielder to be able to go do it is phenomenal. It says a lot about Matt. It says a lot about Oquendo."

"When you tell him he can't do something, he'll figure out how he can," Matheny said. "The defense that he's been able to put together is very surprising and impressive."

In being able to assert himself as a fixture at second base, Carpenter has ascended into select Cardinals company with his offensive output. He's already set the single-season doubles record for a Cards second baseman, and only Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby collected more extra-base hits in a season at second than Carpenter's 67.

Carpenter has already been named an All-Star and should arguably be a top-five finisher in the NL MVP Award vote. The latter would be deserved recognition for a player whose contributions have been precious on a Cardinals club trying to make a run for its first division title since 2009.

"I've been around baseball long enough to understand how hard it is to learn a new position while becoming an everyday player for the first time, and making a change in the batting order to become a leadoff hitter," Carpenter said. "Those are three major things that you can very easily let overwhelm you. It's not easy. Not to say I doubted my abilities, because I always thought I'd be a good player, but I could have never predicted this."

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.

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