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Goold: Matt Carpenter's spicy resurgence rooted in his Waino-built garden

Goold: Matt Carpenter's spicy resurgence rooted in his Waino-built garden

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Past the serpentine vines of tomatoes, near where the cucumbers will be again, and above one, hulking green zucchini, there dangled a bright red jalapeno, all alone. It had been nestled up against another plant, somewhat hidden, and was now a week too overripe to become plucked, diced, stirred and famous in salsa.

The gardener said there were handfuls of jalapenos just days ago.

“But,” Matt Carpenter admitted, “I picked them dry.”

He’s got a hot streak to maintain.

As the Cardinals’ leadoff hitter stormed the National League leaderboard this week in homers, doubles, and OPS, Carpenter’s homemade salsa became the only thing hotter than his hitting. Carpenter credited the salsa with his six-homer binge at Wrigley Field, and he shared on social media pictures of teammates trying to taste the same success.

When Dexter Fowler singled after trying the salsa he pantomimed to the dugout eating a spoonful out of a jar. When Paul DeJong tripled Friday the dugout gave the same hand signal. Two styles of “secret salsa” themed T-shirts went on sale Friday, one championed by Carpenter. Fowler and Carpenter filmed a Michael Jordan-like commercial to promote the shirt that will raise money for Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.

As he welcomed a reporter and photographer to his St. Louis home Friday morning for a tour of the garden, Carpenter had a large jar of fresh salsa in his hand to illustrate what was once growing there.

“Home stand,” Carpenter explained. “Had to make more.”

Walking around the 4-by-16-foot garden in his backyard, he pointed to the tomatoes that are still ripening, the strawberries that will get better in years 2 and 3, and that steadfast zucchini. Teammate Adam Wainwright built the garden for Carpenter in late May — just as Carpenter's average started to bloom — and stocked it with almost all of the ingredients needed for the salsa. But that’s not its only yield.

As one bee and two smartphones buzzed, Carpenter explained the serenity that comes even in a small plot.

“We’ve had this conversation for 10 minutes, and both of us are getting phone calls and text messages about moves that are being made,” he said. “That is constant for a baseball player, for someone in the baseball life. For me to wake up in the morning, walk out here, and check — it’s an outlet. In the offseason, we spend time on the farm, and this garden gives me that same feeling. I’m enjoying the calmness of it.”

Entering the weekend series against the Cubs, Carpenter led the NL in doubles (31) and homers (25) to go with a .963 OPS. He has tied Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds with eight homers against the Cubs in a season — with two more series to play. Carpenter was among the league leaders in snazzier stats such as WAR and OPS+ about two months after being one of the least-productive hitters in the league with a .140 average and a .558 OPS. Those numbers would have burned in his gut more than any jalapeno.

A “cage rat,” Carpenter was known for arriving before dawn at spring training and watching replays of games almost until dawn during the regular season. Struggles ate at him. One former manager worried that Carpenter would be consumed by the game.

Becoming a father has given him reason to not take work home, said Carpenter. Buying a farm, christened Frozen Rope Ranch, outside of Fort Worth, Texas, has given him an escape. And the garden has become his pastime from the pastime.

“If you constantly grind over it, if all you do is think about your performance and the results and the next day’s game or your next at-bat, not only will you drive yourself crazy, it also won’t lead to any success,” Carpenter said. “The reality is you have to separate the results from your work, trust your work, and don’t let the performance devour your personal life. That’s the recipe for your best success.”

There’s more to Carpenter’s resurgence than salsa.

It does have several cameos.

RECIPE FOR A TURNAROUND

On May 11, the morning after a three-strikeout game dropped his average to .147 and his slugging (.284) below his on-base percentage (.296), Carpenter found a spot in the back corner of a favorite breakfast joint in San Diego, The Broken Yolk Café. Carpenter’s favorite breakfasts — eggs, omelets, tacos — all get salsa poured on them, and there it was as former hitting coach John Mabry joined him.

The two spoke for at least 90 minutes about what to do next.

Carpenter had reached out to John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, and asked for “some honest feedback.” He wanted to know if there was “something in ya’ll’s analytics world” that would reveal what was lacking, what part of his game had deteriorated. Carpenter met with general manager Michael Girsch, who walked the leadoff hitter through statistics from exit velocity to bad luck.

“What I got was the exact opposite of what I thought,” Carpenter said. “I thought there would be some glaring sabermetric number that I wasn’t aware of and this thing right here is way worse than it’s ever been. Instead, everything they track is telling us you are doing everything you should. It’s going to turn.”

That breakfast came at the start of a three-day break away from the lineup. Carpenter, Mabry and former assistant hitting coach Bill Mueller plunged into the cage, spending free hours hitting and talking and hitting more. Carpenter got a text message from then-manager Mike Matheny that compared his current stats to a stretch in 2015 that cut deeper into his average and that he had overcome. Unlike other hitters in a spiral, Carpenter didn’t tinker with his swing, didn’t fiddle with a leg kick or waggle.

Armed with confidence from data, his past, and coaches, he didn’t change.

Rather, he doubled-down on his approach.

“That’s what it was,” Carpenter said, leaning near the garden. “To use your analogy, if I’m playing cards and the front office just told me what I was doing was all I need to keep betting on then, fine, alright, I’m all in. I am all in. And then I started hitting blackjack. And blackjack.”

One game after he returned from the respite, Carpenter began a 62-game stretch when he hit .340 with a .728 slugging percentage. No player in the National League had a higher OPS than his 1.162 in that stretch or more extra-base hits than his 47. Coming out of the All-Star break, he brought his homemade salsa on the road for the first time and hit six home runs in a series, setting a Wrigley Field record, and he became the first Cardinal in history with five extra-base hits in the same game. What had been working was now producing.

This past week, in Cincinnati, Carpenter stood at first base chatting with former MVP Joey Votto. The Reds’ leading hitter asked Carpenter for the swing that turned his season around, the day or game he felt it.

It wasn’t one thing. It was a bushel of ingredients.

“I really wish there was this moment so I could tell you and others about it, but it was piece by piece, gradual,” Carpenter said. “I would like to say, ‘OK, this was it.’ I would like to bottle that and sell it.”

NOT WHAT HE'S GROWING, BUT HOW HE'S GROWN

This past spring training, the Carpenters and Wainwrights rented homes nearby each other, and Matt made a resolution. From Adam, he wanted to learn the fingering to play guitar and get the green thumb of a gardener.

“If this is the last year I’m going to play with you and you don’t show me the ropes of the gardening before you leave,” Carpenter said, “I’ll be upset.”

Wainwright discovered gardening during his recovery from Tommy John surgery, and it has since become the centerpiece of his post-career charity plans. He has purchased a farm and intends to use that to feed the hungry and raise money by selling his own products, such as his prized pickles. Recently he described being home alone for 30 minutes “and disappearing into the garden, and it was beautiful.”

Carpenter’s father grew up on a farm, which the family visited often — for more than 50 years, Carpenter’s dad, Rick, woke up on Christmas morning in the same home in Franklin, Ohio — so working the soil “is in my blood a little bit,” Carpenter said.
 Carpenter got tips, and while away on a road trip he got a gift.

Back on the disabled list and unsure of his future, Wainwright found solace in not just tending a garden but building one. He and his daughters constructed and planted one in Carpenter’s yard. Wainwright made its holding out of cedar so no chemicals would creep into the soil. He put the cilantro and dill near larger plants to shade them from harsh sun. He planted marigolds because they’re pest resistant, and he triangulated some wildflowers to draw in the bees because “bees in the garden increase your yield threefold,” he said. Wainwright has an entire hive, complete with honey flow, at his home garden. It dwarfs the starter set he built Carpenter.

"If I had to classify ours from a baseball standpoint, his is the major-league garden," Carpenter said. "Mine is rookie ball. GCL. I just got drafted. He’s a major-league veteran gardener. I’m just getting my career going, trying to prove myself."

Wainwright had no idea Carpenter made his own salsa from store-bought goods, but he got a whiff of what was coming when he asked Carpenter what plants he could use. Carpenter wanted cucumbers for pickles and all the makings for salsa.

The precise recipe, adopted and adapted from his family, remains secret. It has the staples: tomatoes, jalapenos, cilantro, and onion. He adds lime, salt and pepper. He’ll make it with a kick for himself and tone it down when giving it as a gift. Carpenter whirls the ingredients in a food processor and then cooks the salsa “to a simmer.” Jar. Chill. Serve.

Wainwright tried it for the first time Friday.

“A hair spicier than I do,” he said. “It passes my salsa test.”

Carpenter held that fresh jar in his hand throughout conversation at the garden. It’s easy to the point of being corny to read into the calendar: Carpenter’s production flowers in May just as garden takes root. But Carpenter didn’t prune back that idea. There might be something there, he said. The stress of his slow start would have been “tenfold worse” as a younger player, he explained. But now he has seasons to lean on, has two kids and a wife and reasons to go home and not look for his swing there. He has purpose at the ballpark, but knows where to find peace, too. He can pick it from the vine.

The salsa is an added perk.

It’s not what he’s growing, but how he’s grown.

“Where I am now mentally from where I first started as a player, it’s night and day,” Carpenter said. “I’ll work like crazy at the stadium. I’ll obsess over it while I’m at the stadium. I’ll give every ounce of energy and focus to turn whatever I have going on around, and then as soon as I pull out of that parking lot I’m a dad, I’m a husband. And I’m a gardener.”

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He's certainly the most unlikely candidate, considering that on May 15 he was  batting .140 with three homers. Mike Matheny even pinch-hit Harrison Bader for Carp with a game on the line. Now the Cardinals first baseman is tied with Nolan Arenado for the NL lead with 29 homers and leads the league in OPS.

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