ST. LOUIS — If rookie Matt Carpenter happens to be unhappy with his representation, then teammate David Freese might be his best bet for an agent. Freese paid him a high compliment Wednesday night, probably the most meaningful platitude one player can give another.
"He's on the wrong team," Freese said. "This guy should be starting for somebody. He just works his tail off and it shows."
You hear that, GM John Mozeliak? Freese just more or less demanded that Carpenter be traded. Such a move could be in Carpenter's best personal interest someday, but the Cardinals might regret it, and they're probably not going to do it, considering what he has meant to the club this season, and especially in Game 3 of the NLCS.
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Called on to replace Carlos Beltran — simply the best hitter in postseason history — Carpenter connected for a go-ahead two-run home run against San Francisco's Matt Cain in the third inning that keyed a 3-1 victory for the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. They lead the best-of-seven series against the Giants 2-1 heading into Thursday night.
As soon as it became obvious that Beltran was injured with a sore left knee and couldn't play after his at-bat in the bottom of the first inning, the Cardinals dugout scrambled into fire-drill mode. Manager Mike Matheny pointed at Carpenter, who didn't freak out. He didn't have time. Plus, he grasps his role too well.
"It was definitely a surprise," Carpenter said. "I didn't even realize that Carlos had hurt himself and, next thing you know, Mike came up to me and told me to grab my glove and I was going into right field. Really there was no thought process. It just happened so quickly. I was really in the game before I had time to think about it.
"It's one of those things that you can't expect but still be ready for. And I think I was."
Matheny said Carpenter's home run was "obviously the difference-maker."
"It's a pretty strong statement with the lineup we have that there are days when we know he's going to be an impact bat for us," Matheny said. "The fact that we've had different guys go down [with injuries] and he's able to step in no matter what we ask of him — those [kind of] players are invaluable to a club."
In the ninth inning, Carpenter had moved to first base and made a nice diving stop on a grounder by Marco Scutaro. Carpenter's versatility has allowed him to get 340 plate appearances and play five different positions — mostly third base, first and right field. (Third base, eh? Perhaps Freese is trying to eliminate the competition?) Carpenter doesn't look at it that way. He sees himself not as being blocked by other players — Freese, Beltran, Allen Craig — but instead as a spoke inside a wheel.
"As far as staying ready on the bench, that's the role I've had all season long," Carpenter said. "There's a routine that goes with that, with your pregame work and your B.P. and all those things that help you get ready. And then, when the game starts, you just try to stay locked in with what's happening, so stuff like this doesn't surprise you."
Carpenter hit .294/.365/.463 with six homers and 33 extra-base hits overall. Drafted from TCU in 2009, Carpenter's power is a new development at age 26. He credits working with hitting instructors Mark McGwire and John Mabry. (Carpenter calls them "coach Mabry and coach McGwire," as if he's still in college. Adorable. But also telling.)
Carpenter also came in 4 for 4 for his career against Cain, who threw a perfect game earlier this season and has helped win a World Series. But Matheny said Carpenter's brief-but-sterling credentials against Cain had little to do with why he played.
"People will talk about the sample size [being too small]," Matheny said. "But to me, Carpenter is a guy we try to get at-bats for whenever we can."
His success against Cain certainly didn't breed overconfidence, Carpenter said.
"It seems like he's always ahead of me, like tonight — I was down 0-2 in the count, and I just like to grind out those at-bats and fight when I'm up there," Carpenter said. "I worked my way back to a 2-2 count. It was a slider that caught some of the plate and I put a good swing on it."
While allowing for Carpenter's ability, Cain said he did a poor job of taking advantage of Beltran being out of the lineup — specifically that he made a bad pitch against Carpenter.
Beltran, who has endured chronic knee pain for years, still could start Game 4 against right-hander Tim Lincecum. An MRI on Beltran's knee came back clean. But if he doesn't start — or if pretty much anyone else on the Cardinals has to be replaced — they are covered with Carpenter.
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