ST. LOUIS — Matt Carpenter looked tired. Virtually all of his Cardinals’ teammates had showered and cleared out of the visitors’ clubhouse at PNC Park Monday night when the second baseman emerged and slowly headed to his locker, still wearing his game sleeves and shorts.
One of the most standup players on the team when it comes to facing the media, Carpenter had remained in an off-limits area as reporters sought out Cardinals to talk about Michael Wacha’s masterpiece 2-1 victory over the Pirates.
On this day, Carpenter stayed in the background. His presence wasn’t necessary and he had no reason to rehash an 0-for-4 performance at the plate that included three strikeouts. Of the 16 pitches he saw, he swung and missed at five, or 31.5 percent. During the regular season, Carpenter whiffed on only 12.3 percent of his swings, the best rate among St. Louis’ regulars.
But he has not been the same hitter over the past 11 days that he was for so much of his breakout season. Since Carpenter singled for his 199th hit Sept. 27, he has managed only one hit in 23 at-bats — a single in his second at-bat of the NL Division Series. His .067 average in the postseason is the lowest among Cardinals’ regulars.
Carpenter isn’t the only Cardinals player who has scuffled at the plate since their 9-1 victory in Game 1. Over the past three games, the Cardinals have managed 1, 3 and 2 runs and 4, 7 and 3 hits. Following Monday’s quadruple-header of playoff games, St. Louis’ .192 batting average was the lowest of the eight teams to reach the Division Series. After hitting a remarkable .330 with runners in scoring position during the regular season, they are 3 for 21 (.143) against the Pirates.
Still, Carpenter’s slump sticks out like a Pirates’ fan at Busch Stadium. One reason for that is because a Carpenter slump is as rare as a Pirates’ fan at Busch Stadium. A five-game 0-fer in late July-early August was his only bona fide dry spell. His consistency during the regular season went a long way in helping him lead the majors in hits (199), runs (126) and doubles (55).
More significant is the impact he has on the Cardinals’ offense. As he goes, they go. When Carpenter scored a run this season, the Cardinals were a remarkable 41 games over .500, 65-24. When he didn’t cross the plate, they went 28-40. Such impact on the offense is why Carpenter should finish no lower than fourth in NL MVP voting.
So what’s happened?
Before Game 4, Carpenter said he has “been getting really attacked well” by Pirates’ pitching and had yet to figure out the proper adjustment. A scout who has been watching the series said the Pirates have been pounding Carpenter inside.
Such a strategy could prove even more effective this time of year. This is Carpenter’s first season as an everyday player and after 734 plate appearances — second in the majors to Dustin Pedroia (738) — his bat speed has dipped and his swing has looked longer.
Before Monday’s game, Carpenter admitted he can feel the wear and tear of a long season but added, “The postseason adds some extra energy,” he said. “If you are feeling like you’re kind of dragging, this atmosphere will definitely pick that up. I feel good.”
After Carpenter failed in his final two regular-season games to get one more hit to 200, he admitted he might have been pressing. It seems to have carried over into the playoffs, but for a different reason. He is as aware as everyone how much he means to the club’s success.
“What he’s guilty of is caring too much and feeling like he’s got to do something extra special,” manager Mike Matheny said at Tuesday’s off-day presser.
That Carpenter continues to grind out at-bats should help him get back on track. The problem, of course, is that he’s running short on time. A loss to rookie Gerrit Cole and the Pirates Wednesday night would end the Cardinals’ season. Cole already handled the Cardinals once in the series, limiting them to one run and two hits over six innings in a 7-1 victory.
“His stuff was electric,” Carpenter said. “But it’s the postseason and you can’t make excuses. We have to find a way to get it done.”
Easier said than done, especially at this time of year. You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.