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BenFred: Matt Carpenter is building a compelling comeback attempt with Yankees

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He’s walking. He’s hitting leadoff. He’s grinding out at-bats. He’s being praised by teammates for his ability to read pitchers and pass along tips. He’s hitting a two-strike home run off Noah Syndergaard. He’s homering on the 11th pitch of an at-bat against Shohei Ohtani in their first career meeting.

Matt Carpenter is doing damage again.

Yes, that’s him, really.

The trademark beard is gone. The pinstripes (No. 24) are on. The mustache that makes him resemble a cross between Don Mattingly and Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux is centered above a big grin.

Good for him.

One of the more polarizing Cardinals in recent history had two homers and two walks in 13 at-bats entering the Yankees’ Thursday doubleheader against the Angels, and that was before Carpenter stepped into the box as the leadoff hitter in what became a game-one win, worked Ohtani for three balls and seven foul balls, then smacked home run No. 3 over Yankee Stadium’s short right-field wall. This one wasn’t a cheap one. Clocked at 108 mph off the bat, the ball traveled 410 feet. The only question was if it would stay fair, and it did.

We’re talking about a super small sample size, for sure, but remember, the three-time All-Star totaled just three home runs with the Cardinals last season and zero in the more than 150 at-bats that came after last May, which happened to be the last time Carpenter hit leadoff (May 30, 2021) before Thursday. Carpenter’s sharp decline unfortunately clouded an impressive career. Hopefully time balances that out in the end. It will also tell if Carpenter is building an unpredictable comeback story in the Bronx.

Regardless, Carpenter had three more home runs in his first 14 at-bats with the Yankees than Cardinals left-handed hitting designated hitter option Corey Dickerson had through his first 93 at-bats with the Cards entering the big series in Chicago. Maybe Dickerson should grow a mustache?

“I got my path back that I had for most of my career and that I kind of lost the last couple of seasons,” Carpenter told New York media this week. “I feel like I’m staying on balls, being able to put the ball in the air with good spin, having competitive at-bats. I’m seeing the ball well. When you are confident and you have good swing, you feel like you can step in there and face anybody. I do feel that way right now.”

What are we to make of this Carpenter comeback if it indeed continues?

First and most importantly, you credit Carpenter for his rebound.

You tip your cap to the Yankees for once again finding an ex-Cards hitter with a swing that fits Yankee Stadium.

You wonder (at least a little bit) why the hitting staff the Cardinals front office continues to bet on was not able to better help Carpenter stop his freefall.

And if you’re me, you point out that while signing Dickerson to a one-year, $5 million deal was a harmless idea during spring training, it’s getting hard to ignore the power he has not been able to provide. Dickerson getting more chances while Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill heal is one thing. Dickerson blocking Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez from chances once Carlson and O’Neill get healthy would be letting one mistake turn into two.

The Cardinals know the burn of being too loyal to the wrong contract. They went through that with Carpenter.

That’s why, of all the takeaways that can be formed around Carpenter’s hot start with the Yankees, any notion that he should be doing this with the Cardinals is an unfair one that would require too much revisionist history.

Whether Carpenter hits three home runs or 20 for the Yankees, it doesn’t change the fact that Carpenter and the Cardinals both needed a change.

The Cardinals spent too long trying to justify the rushed and unnecessary extension they handed Carpenter in 2019 despite signs his 2018 surge was fading. Neither Carpenter nor the team’s hitting staff could stop his slide. The team committed to playing softening versions of prevent defense until the clock finally expired. There were no winners in the end.

Carpenter could have let that fade define his career.

Instead, this.

“He’s been on our radar now for a few weeks,” Boone told Big Apple reporters. “We had interest in him as a lefty bat off the bench, maybe a pinch-hit bat, and there’s a fit with us a little banged up right now.”

Carpenter, 36, reworked his swing this offseason, took a minor-league deal with the Rangers and put up impressive enough Class AAA numbers to opt out and see which teams were interested. With Josh Donaldson ill and DJ LeMahieu injured, the Yankees and their MLB-best record were. Good call.

Carpenter, a left-handed hitter who can pull the ball with power when he’s right, is a good match for Yankee Stadium’s short porch down the right-field line. So was former Cardinals farmhand Luke Voit, a right-handed slugger with opposite-field power who hit 68 homers and slugged .520 during his 281 games as a Yankee before moving on to San Diego.

Not every former Cardinal who finds success elsewhere would be thriving with the Cardinals.

Sometimes Cardinal Nation forgets that.

Carpenter refused to quit and found a better fit.

Good for him.

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon preview the Cardinals' trip to Wrigley Field. The Cardinals have a chance this month to make up ground on the Brewers by beating the division's losing teams. A pitching staff on the verge of another innings crisis could use some cushion.

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