Monday, April 16, 2012

(The Other) Carpenter to the Rescue

After Sunday's 10-3 series-finale thrashing of the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals stand atop the NL Central with an impressive 7-3 record, displaying a remarkable offensive prowess combined with solid starting pitching from everyone in the rotation except their ace, Adam Wainwright.

Waino, who was roughed up for eight runs in just three innings during Friday's Home Opening loss to the Cubs - his worst outing since 2007 - is still trying to regain the form that made him a twenty-game winner before undergoing Tommy John surgery last year.  Meanwhile, Chris Carpenter is still out of commission with an ailing right shoulder; his status remains uncertain.  Fortunately, Lance Lynn has pitched brilliantly while subbing for Carp; barring another unforeseen injury to someone else in the rotation, pitching shouldn't be a problem for the Cardinals.

Hitting doesn't seem to be a problem, either.  Could it be the reigning World Champions have a bit of a chip on their shoulders after so many naysayers viewed them with such disdain in the wake of the Albert Pujols desertion?  Or could it be the addition of free agent Carlos Beltran to the lineup has essentially replaced the 2011 version of King Albert?  Or could it be David Freese's postseason heroics were no fluke; rather a sample of what lies ahead for the talented third baseman, barring injury?

Freese, of course, has had an uncanny propensity for getting hurt in his brief career.  The general consensus is Freese will have a monster year, if he can stay healthy; he certainly wasted no time in getting off to a flying start by driving in two runs in his first AB of the season.  His torrid hitting continued during the Cardinals' initial road trip through Milwaukee and Cincinnati; by the time it ended, Freese had slugged three home runs with eleven RBIs; while his batting average stood at a Ted Williams-like .406.

Freese has certainly had a little help from his friends; after feasting on Cubs pitching over the weekend, the Cardinals lead MLB in four offensive categories:  BA (.299), HR (15), RUNS (57), and SLG (.504).  What makes this even more impressive is Lance Berkman has been out of action after tearing his right calf muscle while legging out a triple in the fifth game of the season; a 7-2 win over Cincinnati, at Great American Ballpark on April 9.

Meanwhile, David Freese was a last-minute scratch from the lineup for the team's Friday Home Opener against the Cubs; experiencing "finger irritation" on his right ring-finger.  Apparently, this strange injury prevents Freese from gripping the bat well enough to hit in a Freese-like manner.  Hopefully, both Freese and Berkman will be back in the lineup by Tuesday, when the Cards square off at home for the first game of a three-game series against the Reds.

To complicate things even further, hot-hitting Carlos Beltran was nailed on the right forearm by a pitch in Sunday's rout of Chicago, and was quickly removed from the game for precautionary purposes; the Cardinals can ill-afford to lose any of these guys for any extended period of time; however, the rookie replacement for Lance Berkman at first base - Matt Carpenter - has posted some impressive numbers in his brief appearances, including a four-hit five-RBI performance on Sunday, which featured his first career major league home run - a prodigious blast to dead center field, not too far away from the spot David Freese deposited his iconic Game Six walk-off blast.  Carpenter now has ten RBIs (as does Yadier Molina) in just 22 ABs, and now trails the sore-fingered Freese by just a single RBI for the team lead.  Of his nine hits, five have gone for extra bases - a pair of doubles, a pair of triples, and one home run.

As a footnote to Matt Carpenter's Sunday performance, the five RBIs he collected in the game is one better than current Angel Albert Pujols has driven home in nine games.  In addition to the four RBIs he has amassed, Pujols has raised his batting average to a robust .243.  On a lighter note, Pujols has also established a new "personal worst record" by failing to hit a single home run in his first 37 ABs this year - the longest homer-less drought of his storied career.

Getting back the Cardinals - the way things are going, Mike Matheny is going to be penciling "the other" Carpenter's name in the lineup on a regular basis.  Lance Berkman is so impressed with his replacement at first base, he said he'd "gladly continue sitting on the bench if Carpenter could pound out four hits every game."  That's not likely; but the way the rookie's been stroking the ball in the early going, it's reassuring to know this particular contingency plan might work out quite well, if needed.

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