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Carpenter feels 'great' in delayed spring debut

Cards first baseman had been sidelined with back issue
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- Matt Carpenter's slow, circuitous spring took a positive turn on Tuesday, out of the trainer's room, through the back alleys of Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium and into the batter's box. There, he game-tested a balky back while showing an eye in midseason form, walking twice in a Grapefruit League debut weeks in the making.

It was an understated but characteristic debut for the Cardinals' first baseman, who exited the club's 11-4 Grapefruit League win over the Marlins after two plate appearances. That was the plan, and manager Mike Matheny didn't deviate despite the few swinging chances presented to Carpenter over two turns at bat.

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JUPITER, Fla. -- Matt Carpenter's slow, circuitous spring took a positive turn on Tuesday, out of the trainer's room, through the back alleys of Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium and into the batter's box. There, he game-tested a balky back while showing an eye in midseason form, walking twice in a Grapefruit League debut weeks in the making.

It was an understated but characteristic debut for the Cardinals' first baseman, who exited the club's 11-4 Grapefruit League win over the Marlins after two plate appearances. That was the plan, and manager Mike Matheny didn't deviate despite the few swinging chances presented to Carpenter over two turns at bat.

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The Cardinals have turned precaution into a theme for Carpenter, after he sprained his back lifting weights a week before camp. The club prefers to trade time in spring for health come summer, where Matheny hopes to pencil him into the No. 3 spot more times than not.

"If this was something that would have happened in September, I'd have played two weeks ago," Carpenter said. "With that fact that we don't want it to happen in the season, we were just extra careful."

Tweet from @Cardinals: .@MattCarp13 draws a walk in his first at-bat of the spring.#CardsSpringTraining 🌴 pic.twitter.com/TjfOZvJEWU

Their prudence continued on Tuesday, when Matheny pinch-hit for Carpenter when his lineup spot came up for a second time in the second inning, completing the club's second full turn through the order in as many frames. It will continue that way, with Carpenter coming back in baby steps. He's slated to play first base on Wednesday against the Astros. By the end of the week may come a cameo at second base. Next week, he hopes to get a glimpse over at third.

"Just so we're ready if it happens during the season," Carpenter said.

Back in the box Tuesday, Carpenter took few swings. He still found himself in the middle of rallies that led the Cardinals to 11 runs over two innings. In the first, he watched four straight balls whiz by from Marlins starter Jose Urena. Carpenter swung three times during his second at-bat, against reliever Chris Mazza, thrice hooking pitches foul before watching ball four.

"I wanted to go into that first at-bat really aggressive, but he threw four nowhere close," Carpenter said. "Second at-bat, I just took an at-bat. He made some pitches I needed to foul off. For me, that's who I am as a hitter. It felt good to be able to go out there and do what I wanted to do, from an approach standpoint, even though I missed so much time."

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In between, Carpenter participated in the Cardinals' baserunning carousel without restriction. St. Louis scored six runs and batted around against Urena in the first, then scored five more while batting around again in the second, against Mazza. Carpenter twice went first-to-third, once when Marcell Ozuna doubled into the left-field corner, then on an Ozuna bloop single an inning later. He jogged home twice on sure RBI hits from Jose Martinez.

Consider it a welcomed detour for Carpenter, who spent the past month on a monotonous loop around the club's workout complex: from locker, to trainer's room, to turf field, to batting cage, and back. Carpenter reported to camp weeks before position players were required to, then felt his back tighten up before the club's first official workout. He wound up missing 17 Grapefruit League games.

Cardinals officials downplayed the severity of Carpenter's injury for weeks, chalking his delayed schedule up to extreme carefulness. But the lengths they've gone to tiptoe him back into action speak to their concern over his durability, as well as his importance in a lineup they hope improves.

Though he slumped in other areas, Carpenter remained an on-base machine last season, drawing a career-high 109 walks behind an advanced approach and elite chase rate. The club loves the idea of how those skills could play sandwiched in an order between Tommy Pham, their most dynamic returning offensive player, and Ozuna, their splashy, five-tool addition.

"I felt great," Carpenter said of his brief return. "I saw the ball well. Now, it's just about building at-bats through the spring and I'll be ready to go."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Matt Carpenter