Carpenter now neck and neck with Yadi for MVP honors

ST. LOUIS — This time last month, picking the Cardinals’ second most valuable player was a difficult task. While Yadier Molina made a clear choice for the MVP, convincing cases for No. 2 could be made for Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran, Edward Mujica and Adam Wainwright.

Thanks to Carpenter, choosing No. 2 remains a difficult proposition, though for a very different reason. Instead of five players warranting such consideration, there are only two.

One of them is the guy who was the obvious No. 1. That’s correct. Carpenter has been so impressive in helping the Cardinals regain first place in the NL Central that he no longer should be lumped with the runner-up candidates. He deserves to be considered with Molina for top honors.

Not just MVP of the Cardinals, either. We’re talking MVP of the National League.

“I don’t think you can leave him out” of the discussion,” manager Mike Matheny said after Carpenter had sparked the Cardinals’ offense in a 9-2 victory Sunday.

Matheny is as big a Molina booster as there is, too. And let’s be clear. That Carpenter has entered Molina’s neighborhood isn’t a knock on the catcher. Molina’s batting average has slipped, but his value hasn’t diminished. If there were a statistic that measured intangibles, Molina would lead by a lot. Playing through a sore left wrist and a bad right knee do not hurt his cause, either.

Unlike Molina, who became an MVP front-runner the day he walked into the Cardinals’ clubhouse in Jupiter, Carpenter steadily has built his case with a season that no one could have imagined six months ago. Including Carpenter.

“If you told me I was going to get 500 at-bats, I would have been happy with that,” said Carpenter, who has made 628 plate appearances going into Tuesday night’s game against Milwaukee.

Carpenter had not been a leadoff hitter or played second base before this season but has become one of the game’s leading players at both. His defense isn’t likely to win him a Gold Glove (yet), but he leads NL second basemen in turning double plays and has committed only eight errors. Being able to shift over to his natural position, third base, has allowed Matheny much-needed versatility in setting his lineups.

Still, the main reason Carpenter has become a bona fide MVP candidate is because of his work out of the leadoff spot. Start with his consistency. Carpenter has reached base in 28 of his past 29 games. He hasn’t gone more than two consecutive games all season without getting on. He had hitting streaks of 18 and 12 games in the first half.

Such steadiness has put him among baseball’s best in a number of categories. Carpenter leads the majors in runs scored with 112, 15 more than Mike Trout and Shin-Soo Choo.
He also leads all of baseball in multi-hit games (56) and ranks first in the NL in hits (174) and doubles (48).

In the past week, he broke the team record for hits in a season at the newest Busch Stadium (100). He needs six more doubles to pass Stan Musial for third-most in a season by a Cardinal. (Joe Medwick holds the top two spots in the club record book, with 64 and 56 in 1936 and ’37, respectively.)

Through the entire storybook season, the 28-year-old Texan has kept his head out of the clouds while epitomizing Matheny’s “one-game-at-a-time” mantra.

“The opportunity I have been given this year, the chance to play second base, be out there every day, I can’t say enough about how much fun I’m having with that,” Carpenter said. “More importantly, it’s September and we’re in first place. That’s what’s exciting.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. Carpenter has enjoyed his ascent to stardom. You can see that in the clubhouse. The other day, as reporters crowded around his locker, Carpenter turned to a teammate and asked for the music that blares following victories to be turned down. That might seem trivial to those who don’t understand the culture of the clubhouse, but players know better than to make such a request unless they have gained a certain status in the clubhouse.

Carpenter has reached such a standing on the Cardinals. MVP candidates, after all, usually do.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.