JUPITER, Fla. -- Seeing no benefit to pushing through back tightness that first surfaced on Saturday, infielder Matt Carpenter intends to play in only one more Grapefruit League game before stockpiling the rest of his at-bats in a Minor League setting next week.
The progression will lead to Carpenter meeting the Cardinals in Milwaukee, where he’ll be ready to take the team’s first at-bat of the regular season next Thursday.
“Where I’m at, really, truthfully, is that if it were midseason, I would be playing through it,” Carpenter said. “But because of it being early in the year and we’re about to break [camp], I’m not pushing through a little tight back when I don’t feel like it’s a necessity at this point. I had enough workload before that as far as playing and defense to where a day or two would be good.”
Carpenter had five hits, including three homers, in 28 at-bats this spring before feeling his back tighten up while he was fielding ground balls last Saturday. He went for an MRI as a precautionary measure, but the exam revealed no significant damage.
Getting Carpenter into a game this weekend would not only allow him to get a few more looks at Major League pitching, but it would afford manager Mike Shildt the opportunity to see his projected Opening Day lineup fully together for the first time this spring.
Thus far, Shildt has evaluated various batting order combinations in only partial segments. He saw what a Carpenter-Dexter Fowler-Paul Goldschmidt-Marcell Ozuna top looked like several times early in spring. He’s bumped Goldschmidt into the two-hole more recently.
A week away from Opening Day, Shildt cited only two defined anchor points: Carpenter will slot in as the team’s leadoff hitter, and Ozuna will again bat cleanup.
Where Fowler ultimately slots in will dictate where several others fall. Shildt said he’s still considering Fowler as a candidate to hit as high as second and as low as sixth or seventh.
“You could see it either way,” Shildt noted. “Dexter has the ability to hit for pop, but he’s got the ability to do other things as well -- get on base, be what he’s capable of being, which is a multi-tool guy.”
Fowler may have helped his case for more prominent placement with a two-homer performance in Thursday’s 11-3 win against the Yankees. His first two swings against Yankees starter Domingo German sent balls over the wall in right field. Fowler, who hit leadoff in the game, had entered the day with one extra-base hit in his first 40 spring at-bats.
But he had been hitting balls hard. Harder, in fact, than much of the contact he made last season. This spring, the Cardinals’ system has tracked multiple balls in play at an exit velocity of 105 mph or higher. According to Statcast, Fowler had only three such events during the 2018 season.
“You play full games and get some consistent at-bats and you start seeing things click,” Fowler said. “I was in the [batting] cage today and told the hitting coach, ‘Well, that’s what I needed. I said it’s about to click right now.’”
Behind Fowler, Ozuna tallied three extra-base hits in the win over the Yankees. Among them was a home run that the Cardinals tracked to have an exit velocity of 109 mph.
“The eyes tell you and then the metrics tell you -- and of course, the player tells you,” Shildt said, in reference to Ozuna. “The eyes tell me, at least for him, that he’s in a great spot. He’s fluid. He wasn’t hitting balls consistently like that last year with that kind of backspin and carry through the ball. That’s freedom of motion."
As the lineup begins to come together during the final days of camp, the Cardinals expect their offense to, as well. The Cards ranked last with 89 runs scored this spring and had the Majors’ lowest team slugging percentage at .653 entering the final four days of Grapefruit League games.
“We can lean on the fact that, ‘Well, we haven’t put our lineup out there yet,’” Carpenter said. “I don’t buy into anything that happens in Spring Training. The defending World Series champions [the Red Sox] are 7-15 as well. It means nothing. It absolutely means nothing.”