A 6-foot, 3-inch left-handed hitter that no one expected to see climbing out of his team’s dugout on Thursday night drove a fastball to left-center field for a thundering home run that lifted his team to a crucial victory in the first game of the weekend’s consequential four game series at Wrigley Field.
In a game of baseball Clue, Anthony Rizzo might’ve been whodunnit, right up until the team in question began to celebrate the victory. Instead, it was Matt Carpenter with his right arm outstretched in triumph and pointing into a St. Louis Cardinals’ dugout that was overwhelmed with a combination of excitement and relief.
“Just excited for our group of guys,” Carpenter said. “It was a gut punch that inning before. Jack (Flaherty) pitched so great, we had that game locked. It squeaked away from us, they tied it up and then just the emotional turn to be able to get the lead again.
“Just looking in there and the excitement, just fired up for everybody.”
Carpenter’s point may not have been at a particular player, but it was firmly in the direction of a group that’s established itself as one part support system and one part secret society as St. Louis comes down the stretch.
“The Bench Mafia” is comprised of veteran position players leading younger hitters to a path of productivity, and Cardinals manager Mike Shildt spoke to its importance on Friday morning.
“I love the camaraderie with our team, and I love the subset camaraderie,” Shildt said. “The guys on the bench are a cohesive unit. It’s so great to see them work together and talk and game plan.”
José Martínez has been the de facto Don of the group. His experience as a pinch hitter — Shildt called him “one of the better pinch hitters in the National League the last several years” — has given him the necessary vision to take on a leadership role that may otherwise have gone unfilled.
As Carpenter spoke to reporters on Thursday night, Martínez exited Wrigley Field’s visitors’ clubhouse yelling “we believe” at the top of his voice.
The belief is in the team, to be sure, but also in his curated group of bench players: “Bench mafia believe in [Carpenter],” came the message from Martínez’s Twitter account mere minutes after his exit. It was inspiration borne from preparation.
“[José]’s got a great amount of experience coming off the bench,” Shildt said. “To be able to kind of shepherd the rest of the group says a lot about him.”
Infielders Rangel Ravelo and Yairo Muñoz and outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Randy Arozarena have each played important roles on the team’s expanded September roster. Each is battling to carve out his own niche for a team that seems likely to be seeking productive hitters for a postseason roster, and in so doing, they’re making vital contributions to a team that suddenly finds itself without one of its most valuable players.
Second baseman Kolten Wong, who Shildt assessed as almost certain to win his first, elusive Gold Glove award, is out of the lineup with what the team is calling a mild strain of his left hamstring. Wong underwent an MRI in Chicago on Friday morning, and results of that test were not immediately available.
Shildt expected Wong would miss, at a bare minimum, several days, which returns Carpenter to the regular rotation and takes one contributor away from the burgeoning bench fraternity. Membership, evidently, is a complicated subject.
“I don’t know how that works,” Shildt said with a smile. “I get a special guest pass. I’m not sure of the bylaws.”
It falls to Don José to take care of all family business.
“He’s providing a good reference point,” Shildt said of Martínez. “He’s taken a real lead, and (Carpenter) was very involved with it as well.”
“We do the best we can to read the tea leaves, say, ‘hey, we got a chance to hit for the pitcher coming up. It could be x, y, but it could be z.’ But guys are familiar with the game, see the game, and understand how the game works. And they know they may be an option.”