The 2012 St. Louis Cardinals, once upon a time—before the infield fly rule, before the 6-0 comeback, before they took a 3-1 lead against the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS—were built on veterans. Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran, in particular, were supposed to carry the weight of the offense in the absence of Albert Pujols. Berkman never stayed healthy, and now the Cardinals have to deal with a Carlos Beltran injury during the NLCS—exactly his favorite time to turn into a superhuman postseason god-king.
That sort of thing would be pretty poisonous to a baseball team built on veteran hitters, but the Cardinals are lucky. The Cardinals have a rookie named Matt Carpenter. And his job, all year, has been to stand in for injured veterans and do a weirdly accurate impression of their offensive impact.
He's The Understudy. And he's good at his job.
For his first trick, Matt Carpenter turned into Lance Berkman. Berkman played just five games before his season derailed; Carpenter, who'd been pinch-hitting, hit .275/.338/.464 in that first stint, with 11 RBI in 17 starts. At that point Carpenter and Berkman were both injured, which led to a direct-to-DVD sequel starring Matt Adams that ran for about a month.
Now he's Carlos Beltran, a role he played surprisingly infrequently during Beltran's second full season in four years. The outfield is something of an adventure for Carpenter, and if Allen Craig's legs are up to it we're likely to see the configuration they tried on Thursday, with Carpenter at first, for as long as Beltran's out.
But on offense he's been—well, he's been Carlos Beltran in the NLCS. In his first at-bat of Game 3 Carpenter hit a two-run homer that proved to be the game winner; in Game 4 he reached base three times and scored twice.
In Game 5—well, Beltran might be back in Game 5. It's hard to tell. But Carpenter will be ready for any Beltran knee strain, any Craig contusion, any David Freese ankle disaster. And as for that last role, it might be his most compelling performance of all—in 114 games this year, Matt Carpenter hit .294/.365/.463. In 144, David Freese hit .293/.372/.467.