St. Louis Cardinals star Matt Carpenter played first base for five innings Thursday afternoon against the Houston Astros and reached base on a third-inning bunt single.
Carpenter was not permitted to take swings at the plate as he continues his slow recovery from lower-back stiffness. His bunt came on a 1-2 offering from David Paulino after Carpenter had fouled off a 1-1 pitch.
Carpenter sensed the Astros had no idea he could not swing, given that they were in a defensive shift with three players on the right side of second base.
“Opportunity came about and I bunted,” Carpenter said after the 3-0 loss. “I saw the shift, and it was either stand there and take a strike or try to get a base hit bunting. I saw the opportunity and did it.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said it was necessary to see Carpenter in the field.
“We need to get him on the field, first and foremost,” Matheny said, adding that Carpenter’s health was not at risk. “I wouldn’t have him out there if (the medical team) didn’t give him clearance.”
Carpenter has only been able to hit off a tee in spring-training camp. Earlier this week, Matheny indicated Carpenter still was not close to playing without restrictions.
Carpenter, who pulled himself off the United States’ roster in the World Baseball Classic, expects to hit in the cage Monday, with designs on returning to game action by March 18.
“I was probably released to hit (Thursday),” Carpenter said. “I don’t feel the real need to rush it, so we’re going to hit on Monday in the cage and re-evaluate that day. Hopefully, I’ll be in games by (the following) weekend.
“I want to keep getting the work in. I want to be involved. I hate sitting around. For the most part, I feel really good. The only time I feel it is swinging. Even then, I’m pretty close. It was good to be a part of it (Thursday).”
Peppered with questions about Carpenter’s orders to not swing, Matheny said, tongue in cheek: “I’m really excited to watch him play first base. He’ll get defensive work at first base.”
Carpenter batted .271 with 36 doubles, six triples, 21 home runs and 68 RBIs in 129 games last season. He missed one month with an injury to his right oblique.
One of the reasons the Cardinals are not allowing Carpenter to swing the bat is because of concern that the back stiffness could lead to another oblique issue.
Carpenter is expected to bat third in the Cardinals’ order this season, behind new center fielder Dexter Fowler and All-Star shortstop Aledmys Diaz. Carpenter has batted first in 487 of his 719 career games and has registered an .857 OPS.
Carpenter has played just 80 career games at first base and Matheny explained that he will need repetition at the position before it gets too late into camp.
“This is a new position for him on an everyday basis,” Matheny said. “To get out there and (experience) the game speed is really important. Once the trainers and the medical team felt good about the defensive stuff ... He’s been doing some high-speed stuff out back and has had no issues whatsoever.
“We’ve done this with Yadi (Molina) before. We needed to get the repetitions behind the plate. That was the priority over the at-bats. We feel good about this.”
Trevor Rosenthal, technically still competing for the final spot in the rotation, will not take his regular turn Saturday when the Cardinals play the Atlanta Braves at Roger Dean Stadium. Rosenthal threw a bullpen Thursday and is on his way back after an MRI was negative on his right lat. ... Closer Seung Hwan Oh is expected to rejoin the Cardinals on Monday following his stint with Korea in the World Baseball Classic. Korea was eliminated in pool play with two losses in three games. ... MLB Network was at spring training Thursday, filming the Cardinals for its “30 Teams in 30 Days.” The program aired a few hours later.