KANSAS CITY — The Cardinals apparently couldn’t wait to get to town, with many of them leaving their clubhouse in Busch Stadium after Sunday afternoon’s game to make the short trip west even though they don’t play the Royals until Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium. And perhaps no Cardinal will be as happy to arrive here as third baseman Matt Carpenter, who is royalty in Kansas City — and in interleague play, in general.
In 17 games at Kauffman, Carpenter has hit .403 (27 for 67) with eight doubles, five homers, 17 runs batted in, an-base percentage of .488, a slugging percentage of .776 and a whopping OPS of 1.264.
He had five hits in a game on June 4, 2014, on a night it was said he had been trying to dissect his swing using utensils while eating spaghetti in the lunch room.
“That sounds familiar,” Carpenter said, smiling.
“I’ve always liked hitting (in Kansas City),” he said. “I can see the ball well. That’s a big part of it. Also a big part of it was that early on in my career, especially my first year when we played those American League teams, it was an opportunity for me to get to play because we had an extra bat in the lineup (because of the designated hitter rule). I took advantage of it.
“Any time you’ve hit well in a ballpark, when you go back, those good feelings come back. Pretty much every year in my career, when I’m playing there, I’m feeling good. So hopefully, we’ll have a repeat of that.”
For all interleague games, Carpenter ranks second to the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout among active players in on-base percentage (.399) and OPS (.987) and is third in slugging (.588) behind Trout and Washington’s Anthony Rendon. Why this has happened is unclear to Carpenter.
“You could probably say that playing against teams that don’t know you helps,” said Carpenter, who is batting only .176 in interleague play this season. “They don’t have a game plan as good as the teams which have faced you all the time. But, on the flip side of that, it could be the same thing for the hitter. If you don’t face a guy a bunch, you don’t necessarily know what he has.
“I really don’t have an answer. For some reason when we’ve matched up against the AL, I’ve played well.”
Carpenter’s poor interleague average this season is reflective of his mark against all teams, which is .217.
“But my at-bats have been way better since coming back from the rehab stint,” said Carpenter, who took a minor-league tour, at his request, to Class AA Springfield and Class AAA Memphis as he recovered from a right foot contusion and sought to recover his lost swing.
Carpenter was two for 26 during that exercise but since returning to the Cardinals, he has gone five for 20 (.250) but he has hit a number of balls harder than he had been hitting them.
“My swing is getting closer to what I think is capable. But I’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “Candidly I’m really not worried about myself at all. It’s about this team right now. If I was getting six hits a game and we were losing, it doesn’t matter. But . . . winning games and contributing . . . that’s all I care about.
“Obviously I’m not happy with my production. It’s just a shell of what I’m capable of being. But there’s no sense in sitting around and pouting about it. My sole focus is to do my part to help us get into the postseason. If that means I finish the year hitting .220 but I can get some big hits to help us get there, then that will satisfy my need for the season. But I’m doing everything I can to get myself back to respectable numbers that are in line with what I’m capable of doing.
“If I can get to .250 and above an .800 OPS, that would be pretty much a miraculous turnaround. I would be OK with that. Mentally, I’m just trying to roll with it. Nobody wants to be around a sourpuss anyway so . . . ”
Carpenter is hitting sixth rather than first. He has had only 13 starts in that batting-order spot in his career, but is 20 for 48 (.417) while hitting sixth and is for four for 11 there this season.
“I’ve had very few at-bats anywhere, besides leadoff,” he said. “But I like it. I like to be able to watch what a guy’s got that day, what kind of stuff he has. Hitting leadoff, there’s a challenge to that. If a guy’s got great stuff, you’re the first one to find out. If he’s struggling, then, you’re the first guy to find out but it can be tough.”
The Cardinals’ interleague record, with the two games in Kansas City the final two for the season, is just 7-11. In 2016 and 2017, when the Cardinals missed the playoffs, they were 8-12 in interleague play each year.
So their interleague record has — and could — hurt them. For instance, Chicago is 10-8 in interleague play this year, the New York Mets are 10-4, Washington 8-4 and Philadelphia 8-5. Of the teams jousting with the Cardinals for three playoff berths, only Milwaukee (6-10), is worse in interleague than the Cardinals.
“I don’t think there’s anything to it other than we haven’t been good enough the last couple of years,” Carpenter said. “If you look at the years we were in the postseason, we dominated in interleague play but we were just a better team. The last couple of years, we haven’t been as good. This year we’re better.”
The Cardinals will start Tuesday’s play two games behind the division-leading Cubs and one-half game ahead of third-place Milwaukee.
“Our focus this whole year has been the division,” Carpenter said. “We’re two games out. We get to play the team we’re chasing a bunch. We play Milwaukee (nine games).
“If you look at our schedule, outside of Washington, every team that we’re playing that’s not in our division (Colorado seven games, San Francisco four, Arizona three) are sub .500. If we play well against our division teams and take care of business versus the teams that aren’t winning, we’ve got a real good shot. Winning the division is going to be a huge luxury — not having to face the Dodgers in the first round.
“Now I know that you can’t keep talking about it. You’ve got to do it. But you would think that as good of an offense we have, at some point, you’re going to see it.”
As on Sunday when the Cardinals erased a four-run lead in the seventh inning en route to an 11-9 win over Pittsburgh to facilitate a three-game series sweep.
“If that happens, I think we win the division,” Carpenter said. “I honestly believe (the offense) is going to be the deciding factor.”
Carpenter agreed that only second baseman Kolten Wong had matched or exceeded expectations, offensively.
“That’s it,” Carpenter said. “Wong’s right at the .270 mark, seemingly having a career year. The rest of us are underachieving to what we’re used to. If all those guys can bring it back up, I think we can win this division. We don’t even need all of them. Just a few of them. Everything else has been good enough.
“I keep telling myself, I don’t have to be other worldly for these next 46 games. I just have to be better than I’ve been. And everybody else can do that same thing.”