ST. LOUIS -- Matt Carpenter might be the most underrated player in the National League.
He checks all the boxes that tend to get overlooked by people who aren’t looking that hard. He hits his share of home runs, but his real forte is line drives into the power alleys and corners. He often leads the league in doubles. When was the last time you watched a Doubles Derby? He isn’t a flashy defender, but he typically makes the plays he should make. He walks. He hits tough pitching.
But if there is one trait that tends to endear Carpenter to the St. Louis Cardinals' front office, manager and clubhouse, it’s his willingness to bend his agenda to the team’s. Another thing they like about him is that he can hit. He went 3-for-4 to help stir another comeback win, the Cardinals’ 6-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.
The Cardinals were able to solve one of their toughest riddles of the season -- what to do with Aledmys Diaz when Jhonny Peralta returns -- by doing nothing with Diaz. He’ll remain at shortstop, where they think he can develop. Peralta will play third base, and Carpenter will make a position switch, again, back to second base.
Many veterans would have groused about being asked to move positions midseason to accommodate a rookie. Carpenter has played six positions in his career. But he is the kind of player teams increasingly covet for their versatility. Those players are hard to find because the game’s financial system radically underpays utility players.
“I just like playing baseball,” Carpenter said. “Moving around is something I take pride in -- to be able to play more than one position, whether it’s first, second or wherever. Whatever I can do to help us become a better team, that’s what I’m going to do.”
One other useful trait: Carpenter apparently does well on limited sleep. Since the birth of his daughter, Kinley, 11 days ago, Carpenter is batting .429 with six doubles, two triples and 10 runs in eight games. The Cardinals have looked like a different team since he came back from his paternity leave. Among their five wins in that span, they’ve managed to beat Max Scherzer and Jeff Samardzija. Carpenter’s merciless at-bats in the leadoff spot “set the tone” for the team, in the words of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.
“He’s the general, man,” infielder Greg Garcia said. “He’s what makes this team go. Being at the top of the lineup like that, you want a guy like him who can work counts, he can hit the ball out of the ballpark, he plays great defense. He’s everything he’s cracked up to be.”
Garcia, also a left-handed hitter, said Carpenter often approaches him with tips on how he expects that night’s pitcher to attack him. Carpenter is apparently pretty good at that cat-and-mouse game. He’s one of the few left-handed hitters alive, at least since Adam Dunn retired, who consistently hits Clayton Kershaw.
Carpenter singled through the right side of the infield to drive in Randal Grichuk and give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead in the third inning Sunday. After the Giants took a 3-1 lead, he sparked a four-run outburst with a leadoff double in the sixth.
“I think Carp has been locked in multiple times in his career,” Matheny said. “He’s in a good spot right now, putting together those grinding at-bats that set the tone for our club and what we like to see at the top of the order. He’s in a good place, seeing the ball well.”