Nothing is particularly imposing about Matt Carpenter when he steps into a batter’s box. Put it this way: We safely can assume he’s not using PEDs, and he won’t be landing any razor endorsements for best October facial hair. Nor does his résumé blind the senses: $504,000 salary, 13th-round draft pick, second-team All-Mountain West Conference choice as a TCU Horned Frog, three years in the minors. Until a few months ago, he was playing several positions before finally anchoring at second base.
But as the Cardinals hoist their fourth National League pennant in 10 years and embark on a would-be 12th World Series championship in their rich, regal history, Matt Carpenter is the very symbol of what they are as an organization. He’s one of those damned birds on the bat, pesky and relentless and undeniably overachieving within the traditional framework of an elaborate, tried-and-true system — the embodiment of The Cardinal Way. When you hear a baseball franchise flaunt itself in such tones, the temptation is to ridicule it as haughty and play some sort of mock introduction on a bugle.
And then you see Carpenter commandeer an inning, a game, a league championship series — and prove bigger than the Dodgers, their $237-million payroll, their throw-money-and-see-what-sticks ownership, their Hollywood fans, their Mickey Mouse Ears frolicking, their Goofy/Dopey/Grumpy rightfielder, Magic Johnson, Clayton Kershaw and, before the month is through, quite possibly the entire sport. He did so by simply standing in that same batter’s box in the third inning of Game 6, aiming to make contact as his basic game plan against Kershaw, fouling off pitch after pitch and frustrating the sport’s premier pitcher, effectively running up the pitch count to wear him out. In a mesmerizing drama that lasted nearly six minutes in Busch Stadium and had the smarter fans on their feet, recognizing completely what was happening, Carpenter battled off eight pitches before facing Kershaw’s 11th attempt to get him out.
He promptly slapped it into the right-field corner, another double for a leadoff hitter who had 55 doubles and 199 hits in the regular season — and another victory for player development, fundamentals, teaching, high character, attention to detail, focus, commitment, tradition, virtue, all the old-school values and Midwestern mores that shouldn’t work in 2013 but somehow thrive under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, a generational baseball town where people wear red as religion and because their grandfathers took them to their first Redbird games.
“This is a big responsibility,” manager Mike Matheny, aka Tony La Russa’s successor, said of The Cardinal Way. “We’ve got a lot to take care of.”
One way is to outsmart and outstrategize the other team. That was accomplished easily enough against the Dodgers, who performed like a bunch of amateur rockheads after embarrassing themselves with Mickey Mouse gestures and phony tough talk upon drawing within a 3-2 NLCS deficit. The idea was to get inside Kershaw’s head — he had lost his last four decisions against the Cardinals — and Carpenter was the designated tease. He hadn’t performed well in the postseason, going 1 for 19 in the division series against Pittsburgh, and he tried to convince the media afterward that his at-bat was more a desperation moment than a stealth plot. “I was just trying not to strike out,” said Carpenter, per ESPN.com. “I mean, honestly. He struck me out in my first at-bat. He got ahead of me again. And I was like, `Man, I’m not striking out.’ And I just kept trying to fight through it and foul pitches off, and I was able to do it.
“He finally made a mistake with the slider out over the plate.”
The sequence was much more than that. If the Cardinals win their third World Series since 2006 — which almost can be called a dynasty in this age of revenue-sharing parity and only one Yankees championship in 13 years — we’ll remember the at-bat as the impetus of a four-run, five-hit, two-walk outbreak that saw 10 batters face 48 pitches in what eventually would be a 9-0 clincher washout. All of this against a pitcher, Kershaw, who hadn’t allowed an earned run in his last 17 innings and had looked poised to lead the Dodgers to their first World Series since the Kirk Gibson bomb in 1988.
“That was a game-changer,” Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said.
“From there, it seemed like the floodgates opened,” said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who did not have his team ready to play and, once again, provided reasons why he shouldn’t return next year. “We just didn’t seem to be able to stop the tide after that.”
Across the way, a rookie pitcher was just enjoying the run explosion, and the shocking implosion of a soon-to-be Cy Young Award winner and recipient of a $200-million-plus contract. “It was so much fun to watch in the dugout,” Michael Wacha said.
Yes, the come-from-nowhere Michael Wacha, the lights-out phenom who will pitch at least twice in the World Series and might be the top reason the Cardinals should be favored. Here’s another example of The Cardinal Way. Remember when franchise icon Albert Pujols left for a $240-million deal with the Angels, not appreciating what he viewed as a lowball offer in St. Louis? Remember the local consternation? There shouldn’t have been any, because within the system, the Cardinals had groomed a run-producing replacement in Allen Craig, who merely was an MVP candidate and baseball’s best hitter with runners in scoring position before missing six weeks with a foot injury (he’ll be ready for the Series, another reason to pick St. Louis). Craig is one of 10 homegrown hitters on the roster; only Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday, rare big-money splurges, were imported. Pujols’ departure also brought a first-round compensation pick in 2012. Who was that pick?
Wacha, among a staggering group of system-developed young arms who will keep this franchise playing in October for years.
See? Never, ever doubt The Cardinal Way. Of course, they use advanced metrics like everyone else, and unlike the A’s and Rays, they are able to build a decent-sized payroll ($130 million) because they’re in a market where fans pack a beautiful ballpark that has hosted sustained success since it opened seven years ago. But unlike Moneyball monster Billy Beane, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak isn’t kicking any veteran scouts to the curb. He trusts those eyes and ears to make sure every draftee — every Matt Carpenter, every Allen Craig, every Michael Wacha — is teachable and adaptable to a mold.
“From an organizational philosophy, we embrace our past, we focus on today but have an eye for the future,” sais Mozeliak, per USA Today. The character theme gets a lot of play in this organization. We’re certainly grateful for that reputation. But how we get there is not like a secret recipe. It comes down to strong scouts who understand what they’re looking for and what will fit into our model. Then, once (players) get here, what the expectations are from our uniform staff.”
The expectations bloomed into another autumn celebration in a St. Louis lifetime. “It just adds to the legacy of the franchise,” said team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., per the Associated Press. “It’s a thrill to be involved wiht it, and to see the guys perform the way they did.”
Maybe now you understand why the Cardinals reacted as they did when Adrian Gonzalez mocked them with Mickey Mouse Ears gestures and Yasiel Puig prematurely celebrated a home run with grandstanding. The Dodgers were insulting The Cardinal Way — their way of life — and they weren’t going to have it. They answered on the field, 9-zip. “The Cardinal Way is simply being held accountable for your actions,” said Carpenter, per USA Today. “It’s integrity, playing hard, working hard, doing all the little things right.”
The Dodgers, in the end, only did the big things … sometimes. They know little about fundamentals, in-house development, focus and playing The Right Way, and to see them systematically reduces to scraps by the Cardinals is very telling about their future. Sure, Guggenheim Partners can keep throwing around megafortunes, but the Dodgers, like the Yankees, must realize they need a sound farm system to teach their own way. After all, they are the Dodgers, with a long tradition, which got lost and abused under the inept ownerships of Fox and Frank McCourt. It’s vital that Stan Kasten, the veteran baseball man who serves as team president, steadies this crazy rocking ship. You can have emotion, but it has to be channeled professionaly and productively. Is Mattingly really the man to handle this chore, especially if Guggenheim wants to conquer the world as a global baseball operation?
And what of Puig, whose antics drew the attention of the Cardinals, their fans and Major League Baseball? It isn’t often when an MLB executive engages in a heated exchange with a top club official in October? That’s what Joe Torre did with Kasten, lecturing the Dodgers that Puig’s Game 5 stare down of umpire Ted Barrett was unacceptable. Puig responded in Game 6 with an embarrassing way to end an otherwise colorful season, with mishap after team-deflating mishap in right field. He is as unpolished as he is gifted, and if the Dodgers want to avoid trouble, they’ll find a manager who can help Puig grew up and learn the art of restraint.
But who? Torre isn’t coming back to L.A. La Russa says he only wants to manage “in October” and doesn’t miss the grind. Does Dusty Baker still have the energy?
“This one is going to hurt for a long, long time,” Ellis said, per the Los Angeles Times. “The best word for this is shell-shocked.”
Isn’t there some consolation in getting as far as the NLCS? “What does it really matter?” Kershaw said. “Making the playoffs or coming in last place, if you don’t win the World Series, it doesn’t really matter. If you don’t win, what’s the point?”
They can start learning about how to take the next step by watching the World Series. The Cardinal Way, the right way, will be on display.