By Kary Booher
JUPITER, Fla. – All those afternoons in front of the empty seats at Hammons Field now make sense. The endless grounders. His then-manager spotting a flaw and demanding a correction.
How time flies. That was a short, four years ago — back when he starred as the Springfield Cardinals' third baseman, just before Matt Carpenter would lead sort of a nomadic life.
Beaten out for the club's last roster spot by Daniel Descalso, he walked out of these very grounds here at the St. Louis Cardinals spring training complex in 2011 and vowed to market himself as a utility guy. Which he did the next season, showing an ability to play the outfield and finding his way to the big-league roster.
A year ago, he even wrapped his arms around the thought of becoming St. Louis' everyday second baseman — he had never played the position — and not only won the role but starred in the leadoff job as well.
Now look who's come full circle, back home at third base.
In fact, barring a major shift in thinking, Carpenter will be St. Louis' opening day third baseman and leadoff man next Monday in Cincinnati, moving across the diamond again thanks in part to the emergence of rookie second baseman Kolten Wong.
It'll be like riding a bike, Carpenter said in so many words.
"There's some familiarity there. I played it my whole life, so it's not like second base where I had to go learn something that I've never done," Carpenter said in the big-league clubhouse. "It's just basically fine-tuning something I've already played. And that's kind of what I've done all spring, trying to get back into the feel of what it was like when I was over there before."
Call this spring quite a ride already for Carpenter. After getting married over the winter and buying a house, Carpenter agreed to a six-year contract extension worth a reported $52 million.
The offseason included the Cardinals trading 2011 World Series MVP David Freese to the Angels to clear space at third base. It followed a season in which Carpenter led the majors in hits (199), runs scored (126), doubles (55) and multi-hit games (63).
"It's nice. It's pretty humbling and a pretty exciting step," Carpenter said of the extension, which means he is signed longer than the club's stars — Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Allen Craig.
"It's a good feeling to get that six-year deal and know they're invested in you," said Carpenter, whose .318 average was fifth-best in the National League. "You don't have to be a first-rounder to make it here and have success and get an opportunity."
Then again, Carpenter created this opportunity, as his enhanced defense at third base back in his Double-A day eventually created the comfort necessary for the Cardinals to dispatch him back to his natural position.
To understand it, just look back to the summer of 2010. Under the heat of an energy-draining afternoon sun and the watchful eye of then-Springfield manager Ron "Pop" Warner, Carpenter sweated it out as he sharpened his defensive skill set.
Seemed simple enough. But it wasn't. Carpenter carried over an odd defensive technique from Texas Christian University, in which he would scoop a ground ball with his glove, sort of the way a backhoe scoops up dirt.
Warner was out to put an end to it.
The worry, Warner said at the time, was a grounder rolling under Carpenter's glove or caroming off it. No need to give a batter a free base.
"When I was a third baseman in Springfield, I kind of fielded some balls unorthodox. But we ironed those out in the minor leagues," Carpenter said. "Now it's a matter of continuing it and being consistent. I just want to get to the point where I make every play."
His work ethic is no surprise to manager Mike Matheny, who after Carpenter signed the contract extension, couldn't say enough good things. Carpenter was a 13th-round draft pick in 2009.
"Our veteran players are going to go about it how they're going to go about it. But they can't help but watch, 'OK, how did this guy get on the board all of a sudden? How is he in the MVP runnings,'" Matheny was quoted as saying, according to StlCardinals.com beat writer Jenifer Langosch.
"They can't help but translate the work that has been put in and the discipline that this guy has made himself better and I'd like to make myself at least thought of in that regard and in those conversations when you start talking most valuable players."