In 32 career plate appearances (31 at bats; including the postseason), Matt Carpenter has nine hits (four singles, three doubles, one triple, and one home run) against the 2014 National League MVP and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw—good for a small-sample-sized slash line of .290/.313/.548 by the Cardinals leadoff man. Yet, our lasting memories of this matchup largely come from, but are also not limited to, two instant-classic postseason at bats—one from game six of the 2013 NLCS and the other from game one of the 2014 NLDS. Last February, I penned this piece remembering his 11-pitch at bat in 2013, but now, I will turn our focus to the eight-pitch game-changing at bat in the NLDS two and a half months ago.
The Cardinals, on the road for game one of the NLDS, were down 6-2 at the start of the seventh inning with Kershaw seemingly "in a groove"—he had retired 18 of the first 20 hitters, with eight coming via strikeout. Fortunately for the Cardinals, Kershaw's performance began to slip in the seventh as RBI singles by Matt Adams and Jon Jay cut the Dodgers lead in half, 6-4. With the bases loaded and one out, Kershaw schooled the pinch-hitting Oscar Taveras on three pitches, finding himself one out away from maintaining the lead and likely handing the game over to the bullpen. Despite looking dominant in his three-pitch strikeout of Taveras, Kershaw's outing was far from over as Carpenter strolled to the plate, fresh off a solo home run just an inning prior.
The at bat, part two:
In total, Carpenter faced eight pitches, with five of them being four-seam fastballs (average velocity: 94.9 MPH) and the remaining three being sliders (average velocity: 89.2 MPH). Carpenter fouled off the first three pitches (all fastballs on the outer half) of the at bat and immediately found himself in an 0-2 hole. In his career, Kershaw is holding hitters to a .115/.143/.157 slash line after an 0-2 count (1,267 plate appearances). Well, Carpenter took two consecutive balls (one in the dirt and the other way up, out of the zone), fouled off two tough pitches, and finally, declared the at bat over with by smashing a laser off the right-center field wall on a 95.4 MPH fastball—clearing the bases, chasing Kershaw, and giving his team the lead, 7-6.
It's obvious that Kershaw missed his spot by roughly two feet (Ellis was set up down, away, and possibly off the plate) on the deciding pitch of the at bat. However, with pitch number seven being a nasty slider low and away, one would think Carpenter's eye level was altered, at least slightly. Yet, if the Cardinals' "book" on Kershaw was anywhere close to my amateur scouting report on him pre-NLDS, hitters were expecting a heavy dose of fastballs with the sole intention of driving them into the gaps and beyond. As you will see in the video below, Carpenter did just that. It clearly helped that the pitch was at the top of the "middle-middle" zone—a location even the best pitchers in the game need to avoid.
Tom Verducci, "Give Carpenter a lot of credit for refusing to be put away by the best strikeout pitcher in the league."
Harold Reynolds, "He swung at every pitch like he knew what was coming."
The fact that we have been fortunate enough to experience two game-changing at bats between identical foes two years in a row leaves me excited for the future. Both Carpenter and Kershaw are under contract for years to come, and despite a flurry of moves made by the Dodgers front office this offseason, one could reasonably project the two teams facing off again in the 2015 postseason. I don't know about you, but the possibility of another Carpenter-Kershaw matchup during a critical, possibly game-changing situation makes me wish we were much closer to spring training than we are. In the meantime, the best we can do is appreciate what we've already experienced. Thank you, @MattCarp13. Thank you very much.
In closing, let's take a look at a fun statistic leaderboard of the day via Mark Simon of ESPN:
2014 leaderboard of the day Which hitters saw the most pitches per plate appearances? (minimum 250 PA) pic.twitter.com/ycBh4j8eWg— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) December 22, 2014
Credit to BrooksBaseball for the chart used in this post.