ST. LOUIS -- Shortly after the St. Louis Cardinals bowed to the inevitable and put Matt Carpenter on the disabled list for a strained oblique muscle Thursday, people started asking about who the next man up will be. How do you fill in for a leadoff hitter who could bat third on most teams in the major leagues?
With apologies to Greg Garcia, a nice utility player who looked awfully good on Thursday in the No. 1 spot, his resume doesn’t exactly cry out that he’s the next Carpenter. In fact, there isn’t a hitter in the Cardinals’ clubhouse -- and certainly not in their Triple-A Memphis clubhouse -- capable of making the impact Carpenter did with his patience and short, devastating stroke. That might be the understatement of the season.
One veteran scout described losing Carpenter as a blow that would be “awful for any team.”
“He’s such a tough out who just grinds up pitchers,” the scout said. “He does damage. He’s not just an OBP guy.”
The Cardinals had just six hits. It would be surprising if they were as dynamic offensively without Carpenter as they were with him. It would be stunning if they were as dynamic without Carpenter and Brandon Moss, whose absence has been largely ignored, though he leads the team in home runs and is third to Carpenter and Aledmys Diaz in OPS.
There is, however, one segment in the clubhouse capable of picking the team up from this morass. How do we know? Because it’s the same group that did it last year. The Cardinals pitching staff most likely has to carry the team once again. For too much of 2016, the Cardinals staff has been relatively dead weight, the hitters having to dig them out from early holes too often.
Things have been changing, gradually and largely beneath the public gaze. The Cardinals probably won’t have a pitcher at the All-Star Game and, frankly, they don’t deserve one. Carlos Martinez is the most worthy and he’s 14th in the National League in ERA, 19th in FIP (fielding independent pitching) and 22nd in xFIP. But they’re everything for this team’s chances in what is shaping up as an increasingly challenging wild-card race.
Adam Wainwright pitched seven dominating innings, striking out nine Pirates, on Thursday.
“That’s what we needed from our ace,” manager Mike Matheny said. “He came in planning on picking it up for us.”
Despite his surprising 4.49 ERA, Wainwright is tied with Martinez on the staff with 11 quality starts. The Cardinals are 11-3 in his past 14 starts. Since June 3, Wainwright has a 2.76 ERA and has thrown just one start that wasn’t quality. He has looked like himself again.
Michael Wacha, who pitches Friday in Milwaukee, has won three straight starts and had quality outings in four of his past five. Martinez has been on a steady roll for a month, though the Cardinals have been wasting arguably the best stretch of his career. Mike Leake has been solid. The Cardinals never really know what they’re going to get from Jaime Garcia, but he has been like that most of his career. His bedeviling movement creates uncertainty about whether he’ll be able to throw enough strikes.
Wainwright was among the injured players last year, but he saw how his teammates rallied to win 100 games. He thinks that set a template for the next month or two, as Moss and Carpenter work their way back.
“There were times our team could have easily shut down. They picked it up more,” Wainwright said. “We’re in that spot right now. All these great players are hurt. We’ve got to step up. We’re going to come together as a team. We’re going to do that.”
Matheny didn’t gather the Cardinals together for a pregame pep talk to discuss filling the void that Carpenter leaves.
“Yeah, that doesn’t happen, at least not as long as I’ve been up,” Stephen Piscotty said.
Matheny didn’t want to go all Knute Rockne and then find that the energy only lasted one day. The Cardinals can best replace Carpenter by imitating his focus and smart approach, not by trying so hard they tie themselves up in knots. Garcia isn’t terribly ideal as a leadoff guy because he is an aggressive hitter looking for the first fastball in the strike zone, but he knew Pittsburgh rookie Tyler Glasnow has great stuff with a tendency toward wildness. He figured he’d be nervous in his debut.
So, he did something Carpenter might have done leading off the game. He walked.
“That first pitch, I was looking right down the middle, then I expanded a little bit and a little bit after that,” Garcia said.
Garcia later had a double and scored a run. Piscotty hit his third home run of the homestand. Randal Grichuk also went deep, hitting a majestic 431-foot shot in the fifth inning.
“I think Cardinal baseball is picking up for guys when they go down,” Piscotty said. “It happened a lot last year. It’s not foreign to this team. I think we’ll do a good job and get this thing rolling.”