ST. LOUIS — Most of his teammates already had headed into their Sunday night when Matt Carpenter, still in uniform, entered the Cardinals’ clubhouse. He quickly changed into his workout shorts and hustled out the other door.
Wow, you think, this guy really does work hard. The Cardinals had just finished a stretch of nine games in 10 days with a day off coming Monday and he’s going out for extra work. That is grinding, indeed.
Well, as it turned out, Carpenter was not heading for the batting cage. He went into a hallway at Busch Stadium to visit with some buddies who had watched the Cardinals’ 6-5 loss to the Braves. You might not have heard of them but if you’ve been to Busch Stadium, you have heard them.
They’re in a band, the Turnpike Troubadours, and Carpenter uses one of their songs, "Long Hot Summer Days," for his walk-up music. He did not pick the song because he knows the Troubadours, but since they found out he walks out to their music, the All-Star and the country musicians have become pals. They’re close enough that during the offseason when the Troubadours played in Carpenter’s offseason home, Fort Worth, the band invited him on stage. To sing.
"Me and a group of my friends were hanging out backstage, listening to the concert, and the next thing you know they’re like, ‘We’ve got a special guest,’" Carpenter said. "I had no idea and was wondering who it was. Then they called me on stage. But it was fun."
Carpenter secured his celebrity status with a breakout 2013 season when he led the majors in runs and doubles, tied for the lead in hits and finished top 10 in batting average and on-base percentage. This year has been different. Instead of seeing his name among the top five leaders, you’re more likely to find him in the top 15, if at all.
He is hitting .265 with a .371 OBP, seven doubles and 30 runs, which is sixth best in the NL. He also is fifth in walks but, surprisingly, leads the Cardinals in strikeouts. Even more unexpected is a .324 slugging percentage that is lowest among Cardinals regulars.
Carpenter has been good but not great, and he knows it as well as anyone.
"I don’t feel great at the plate," he said, and this was after reaching base in all five of his plate appearances. "I haven’t hit that groove yet. At the same time, I’m finding a way to get on base. I believe there’ll be a time this season when I’m swinging the bat and instead of walks, it’s five hits. That will come. I have to continue with my approach and stick with it."
His approach does not appear to have changed. Carpenter still is grinding out at-bats — that is, taking a lot of pitches and working counts. He is averaging 4.17 pitches per plate appearance, sixth best in the NL, after finishing seventh last year (4.12). He hasn’t, however, enjoyed the same success hitting with two strikes as he did last year, when his .279 average led the NL. So far this year, he’s hitting .180 with two strikes. Carpenter remains confident that his two-strike average and all of his numbers will be there by September.
"My approach is something I really believe in. You can’t look at 40 games, or one month," he said. "My approach is something that if I really continue to stick with over the course of the season, it pays dividends."
Much the same might be said for most of his teammates, who also are seeking to find consistent success at the plate. The Cardinals have hit better in May than in April but still haven’t approached their 2013 level. After 44 games last year, they were averaging 4.6 runs a game. After 44 games this season, they’re averaging 3.8, although they’ve averaged 4.2 in May. They are coming off their most productive week, scoring four or five runs in all six games last week.
"I know people are tired of hearing us say it’s coming," Carpenter said. "But that’s the way it is. It’s coming. Guys are slowly starting to feel more and more comfortable. We’re starting to get more guys on base. Things are starting to happen."
The key, says Carpenter, is simple. Keep doing what they’ve been doing.
"I’m a big believer if you do the right thing, if you have good at-bats, the game will reward you," he said. "Early in the season when we weren’t doing that, it seemed like things would snowball in a negative way. (Now) it’s a combination of we’re doing a good job of doing the little things and guys are starting to heat up. The game is starting to reward us a little bit."
The game proved cruel on Sunday when the Cardinals came within one strike of their first sweep of the season but ended up losing when the tying and winning runs scored on a bases-loaded walk and a wild pitch.
"We basically had this game won and it slipped out of our hands," Carpenter said. "It ended in a negative way, but it was a great series. We won two out of three versus a good team and had a chance to sweep. It just slipped away. Hopefully, we can start another winning streak on Tuesday."
Just stay the course. There’s a lot of "Long Hot Summer Days" ahead.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.