When they spoke later after facing each other Friday night in an intrasquad game, Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas explained why he tested Matt Carpenter with a 2-0 fastball that the team’s former leadoff hitter planted in the bullpen for a homer. That pitch said more about Mikolas’ thinking than it did about Carpenter’s timing.
It was another pitch tagged to left for an out that revealed Carpenter’s swing.
“For me, 100 percent, it was the swing on the backdoor cutter from Miles,” Carpenter said. “The home run is nice. But you can hit a home run and it doesn’t really tell you a lot other than you hit a home run. For me, to be able to take that swing on that pitch is right where I want to be.”
Regardless of where it is that he plays or hits.
With less than a week before opening day against Pittsburgh and righthander Joe Musgrove at Busch Stadium, on what originally was scheduled to be a Friday night against the Yankees at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals fielded a starting lineup ready for the regular season. Kolten Wong owns leadoff. The Pauls, Goldschmidt and DeJong, stacked at Nos. 3 and 4, respectively, and then came Carpenter, batting fifth. The moveable piece for manager Mike Shildt, Carpenter started at designated hitter and instead of No. 2 moved into the middle of the order so the Cardinals could take another lineup for a test drive. With Carpenter behind DeJong, Tommy Edman batted second and played third — giving the Cardinals speed at the top and bottom of the order.
“I think it’s what now is a DH lineup,” Shildt said. “I think it’s a look we wanted to see, and it was a nice look. … We’re definitely thinking about (it). It’s getting to that point where you know rotations and roles and lineups clearly need to be set.”
In his career, Carpenter has had few starts (13) at the fifth spot in the order, and even fewer (eight) at DH. He’s never been both.
By shifting Carpenter to DH — either regularly, or part of a rotation — the Cardinals are able to get Edman at third base as part of a good-hands infield and also give the lineup a fleet-footed look. Carpenter named names when he talked about how as the Cardinals’ All-Star leadoff hitter he ran into situation where pitchers were on first and did not score from first base. He joked that Lance Lynn didn’t, Adam Wainwright — “all apologies to Adam,” he said — didn’t. Harrison Bader, the Cardinals’ lineup No. 9 hitter, will.
“I think part of my skillset is to be able to hit in different spots,” Carpenter said. “I think what you saw out of our lineup (Friday) — the opportunity to have that much speed hitting one right after another like that. One inning, Bader leads off, then Kolten, and then Tommy followed. That’s pretty unique. I don’t know how it will play out but those guys at the top of the lineup can do a lot with their feet. Might be something that sticks.”
Brad Miller has explained a simple approach to being DH that he and others adopted when they were teammates in Tampa Bay: Hit a home run in the first at-bat.
It relieves all the stress of only being a hitter for a day, he said.
Miller, sidelined in this camp by right heel soreness, sat near Carpenter in the dugout Friday as Carpenter got used to the half-inning role of DH. In his career, Carpenter has 37 plate appearances at DH. He’s almost played as many positions in the majors as he has had starts at DH given how much he moved around early in his career. Miller, a chatterbox during games, said he hopes he didn’t “annoy” Carpenter with all his talking, but it did help Carpenter start to think about how to approach games when not in the field.
“There is definitely going to be a technique to it,” Carpenter said. “It’s its own unique position that I haven’t had a ton of opportunity or experience in. I’m more than willing to do it and learn it and adapt to it. But I haven’t really figured (it) out. (This) was a good start to figure out what that routine looks like. Try to find one that gives me a chance to be locked into the game.”
Carpenter spent most of last season searching for his swing, caught between the power, pull-happy hitter he became on his way to 36 in 2018 and the gap-power leadoff man that once rapped 55 doubles in a season. Since the end of last season, when his struggles made him a part-time player sharing a position with Edman, Carpenter has worked to reunite with his former, democratic, all-fields swing. He showed flares of that during spring training, and his intent to drive the ball to left field with authority has been clear in “Summer Camp.”
That’s why his lineout was louder to him than his homer.
After DeJong’s walk to lead off the second inning against Mikolas, Carpenter came up as the No. 2 hitter of the inning. Mikolas fell behind in the count, 2-0, and knew the numbers were on his side to come back with a fastball, especially against the ever-patient Carpenter. The DH jumped the fastball and pulled it for a 398-foot shot that produced the Red team’s two runs in a 2-1 win.
“He told me in that situation he walked Paul and didn’t want to fall behind again,” Carpenter said. “Took his chances. If he throws a fastball there, the odds of me hitting a home run — he threw some number out. I guess he knew. I won that one.”
In the fourth, Carpenter got Mikolas to a 2-1 count. That invited a cutter that Mikolas spotted to slice back across the plate as it neared the mitt. The pitch was good, maybe a tad too much of the plate, but rather than try to pull it and miss it or flip it to left for a fly ball, Carpenter was able to greet it with the barrel of the bat and drive it into left-center field.
“Cutter, backdoor, laser to left,” Miller said.
Austin Dean caught the liner on the run to keep Carpenter from extra bases.
“I was way happier with that swing,” Carpenter said.
Where the swing is means more than where he plays or where he hits.
Midway through Friday’s intrasquad game he improvised a way to stay busy as DH. He orchestrated something of a midgame trade by volunteering to pinch-run for the Blue squad. Carpenter advanced to second on a wild pitch. He took third on a fly ball. He had a chance to score the second run for both teams in the game but was stranded at third. He said he was looking for opportunities to get in some baserunning.
His only time on base had been a trot around them.