|Matt Carpenter rounds the bases after he hits a two-run home run in the third inning. (Getty Images)|
ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals have something special going. By now, if you don't believe that, you haven't been paying attention.
Carlos Beltran, the best hitter in postseason history, had to leave Game 3 early because of knee pain. So what happens? The guy who replaces him, a bit player, becomes the hero.
|More on Giants-Cardinals|
|Who wins World Series?|
Matt Carpenter, who is most famous for not being the St. Louis Cardinal related to Chris Carpenter, drilled a two-run home run off Giants star Matt Cain the inning after replacing Beltran. As fate would have it, the two-run homer was the big hit in the Cardinals' 3-1 victory over the Giants in a game that was interrupted by a three-hour, 28-minute rain delay.
The Cardinals, last year's surprise World Series winners, are now up 2-1 in the NLCS and are two wins away from a second straight surprise Series appearance. But this is the first ever LCS matchup between the previous two years' World Series winners, and the Giants are a lot tougher than their individual names, too.
Carpenter is a pretty fair bench player and pinch hitter, but he cuts a very low profile. Beltran, meanwhile, is the career playoff OPS leader at 1.327. That's everybody, all-time.
But Beltran has dicey knees, and Carpenter was ready. "[Cardinals manager Mike Matheny] told me to grab a bat," is the matter-of-fact way the unassuming Carpenter put it when Beltran had to leave to start the second inning.
The man understands his role, and has no illusions about starting.(Though for Game 4 it'll be up to Beltran's knee; he had an MRI, which revealed no structural damage,)
Carpenter's job is to be prepared, but this time even he was surprised. "It was out of nowhere," Carpenter said. "You don't expect things like that to happen."
Though, maybe he should -- and we all should -- when it comes to the Cardinals. Matheny seems to have the magic touch. And even when he doesn't, something intercedes. In this case it was Beltran's surgically repaired left knee which he "jammed" on first base in the first. Carpenter was actually already a perfect 4 for 4 against Cain going into the game, a pretty amazing record against one of the game's best pitchers. But he knows the score. He knew he'd be on the bench, 1.000 batting average or not.
"Obviously, all season long I realize what my role is on the team," Carpenter said. "When I get in there I try to have quality at-bats."
This was quality with an exclamation point, especially for his first NLCS at-bat. His parents made the half-day drive up from Prosper, Texas, for the occasion. His dad Rick, who built a powerhouse high school program in Texas, is the one who taught him the game. But no one can prepare someone for a spur-of-the-moment at-bat against the National League All-Star starter. That comes naturally. He worked an 0-2 count to 2-2 before pulling it into the pen, an estimated 421 feet away.
"It was crazy," Carpenter said. "It was one of those deals where you're really not thinking, you're just competing."
Some might say the same for Matheny. But the reality is, the first-year manager just seems to have a knack. His choice to intentionally walk Buster Posey to put runners at first and third paid off when the struggling Hunter Pence grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, keeping the Giants' early lead at only 1-0.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy hinted at changes for Game 4 in the batting order, and the main possibility is that Pence, who has no postseason RBI after 104 during the regular season, might find himself falling from No. 5. The Giants wasted several opportunities in Game 3, as they could only turn nine hits and five walks into the lone run.
"We had our chances. We left too many on base," Bochy said. "And what you try to do in a game is create those chances that you have, and he's the guy we want up there with men on base ... knocked in over a hundred runs this year, he's got a knack for knocking in runs."
Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse, who continued his positive performances in his walk year, walked a rare five batters (including Posey intentionally) but pitched out of several jams. Matheny used his usual bullpen combo of Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte to close the game out, but Matheny's twist was to use Motte for two innings after the long delay. Mujica normally has the seventh inning, but this time he shared it with Boggs when he allowed two hits and recorded only one out. Then Matheny went to Motte, who retired all six Giants he faced. If Motte was surprised, it didn't faze him. With about 30 minutes to go in the nearly 3 ½ hour rain delay, he was told he was now, for today anyway, a two-inning man.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "My job is to go out there, makes pitches and execute."
During the regular season, Motte saved 42 wins, not one requiring two innings. But Motte is another low-key Cardinal. He doesn't mind.
"I don't think about that," he said. "I worry about the guy at the plate."
Whatever the Cardinals do seems right. Matheny pulled a few surprise moves to nail down the win.
But the real surprise was Carpenter. The other Carpenter.