A version of this story appears in the Sept. 24–Oct. 1, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—It was late August, and Matt Carpenter couldn't stop vomiting. A stomach bug had knocked him out of his last two games before the seventh inning, and when he reported to Busch Stadium on the third day of his illness on Aug. 31, the Cardinals' first baseman was so dehydrated that trainers had to hook him up to two IVs at the same time. He hadn't eaten in 48 hours, either, so to get game-ready, Carpenter had no choice but to scarf down some ... salsa?
As far as gastrointestinal-distress remedies go, spicy, acidic, liquidy noshes aren't exactly what the doctor ordered. But ever since Carpenter started bringing his homemade salsa to the ballpark this summer and sharing it as a pregame meal, he and the Cards have been on fire. The sacrifice had to be made.
"That was tough, but I really like winning," says Carpenter in the visitors’ dugout at Nationals Park in early September, a thunderstorm rumbling overhead. It worked. That night, he forced his salsa down and stayed in the lineup for all nine innings, going 2 for 5 against the Reds, including his 35th home run of the year, to lift St. Louis to its 22nd win in 28 games.
Stuck at .500 for the first three months of the season, the Cardinals fired manager Mike Matheny less than 72 hours before the All-Star Game, then dropped three of five games in a series against the Cubs after the break to fall a season-worst 8 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central. But after that blazing August, they’re squarely back in the playoff hunt. And as St. Louis surged, Carpenter’s salsa was the fuel, becoming a staple of the team’s pregame meals and the inspiration behind t-shirts, hats and dugout celebrations. (The fans love it, too: As Carpenter took batting practice in Nationals Park one afternoon that week, his line drives into the rightfield stands were followed by the cheers of a man in Cardinals gear toting a bag of Tostitos chips and a homemade sign reading “IT’S GOTTA BE THE SALSA” in the seats near home plate.)
The team's turnaround has less to do with the Mexican dip, though, than it does with the guy who's making it (and eating a Mason jar's worth of it before every game). "He's been as valuable as any player in the NL," Cardinals general manager Mike Girsch says. "He singlehandedly kept us from falling out of the race."
It's not a result anyone expected—and not simply because the 32-year-old Carpenter was mired in one of the worst slumps of his career through mid-May. "If you'd told me when he left college that this guy might win an MVP in the big leagues, I would've wondered what you were smoking or drinking," says Jim Schlossnagle, his coach at Texas Christian University.
But as Carpenter chases MVP honors and the Cardinals fight for a playoff spot, perhaps the biggest surprise is that he even had a big league career at all.
When Carpenter sat down in Schlossnagle's office in February 2007, the skipper had one message for the injured, overweight, unmotivated infielder who had arrived on campus two years earlier as a star recruit: Get it together.
As a sophomore, Carpenter had hit .349 and helped lead the Horned Frogs to a Mountain West title. But his grades were poor, and his conditioning was awful: In his first two years in Fort Worth, he'd put 40 pounds on his 6' 3" frame, ballooning up to 240. Then, early in his junior year, he hurt his right elbow and underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery. Soon after, Schlossnagle pulled him into his office for a heart-to-heart.
"I said, Listen, now there's no baseball," Schlossnagle says. "You can cry about it, or you can see it as this awesome opportunity to address things in the rest of your life."
TCU expected a lot of Carpenter, who'd taken to baseball while still in diapers. His father, Rick, a high school baseball coach in Texas, remembers seeing his son, at 18 months, pick up a dowel rod in the living room of their suburban Houston home, put it on his shoulder and take a batting stance. "He's been a student of the game ever since," says Rick.
As kids, Matt and younger brother Tyler, who briefly played in the Mets' farm system, would dream about their big league futures. Highly competitive, Matt had a drive that made him a three-year starter on his dad's varsity squad. Says Rick, "My assistants nicknamed him One More, because when they threw him batting practice, he was always like, 'Gimme one more.'” By the time Matt finished a decorated high school career, he was drawing attention from pro scouts and big-time college programs, including Texas and Baylor. He ultimately chose TCU, wanting to help elevate the program.
Carpenter arrived at college as a top recruit with an advanced-for-his-age recognition of the strike zone, which he’d developed thanks to his father. “When I threw his batting practice, I didn’t just pipe it for him,” Rick says. “I’d intentionally throw balls out of the strike zone, and if he swung at it, I’d let him know that it was a ball.” He figured he'd play three years, win some games and then get drafted. But that plan looked ruined after his injury. "I was the furthest thing away from a major league prospect," he says.
At that low point, Schlossnagle's straight talk resonated with Carpenter. "I left his office that day and changed everything," he says. A junk food aficionado, Carpenter swore off soda, burgers and pizza to shed the 40 pounds, and became a model student, too. "He was a different human being in every possible area," Schlossnagle says. The same fanatical drive and discipline Carpenter had shown in baseball now carried over to his personal life. "I haven't seen Matt eat a dessert since this all happened," Rick says. Back in May, he watched as Matt let his two-year-old daughter, Kinley, put a piece of cake in his mouth during her birthday party, only to spit it out when she wasn't looking.
Granted a redshirt season due to injury, Carpenter returned in 2008 and cranked 11 homers, nine more than he had blasted over his first two seasons. He was even better in '09, hitting .333 with 11 homers and walking twice as often as he struck out. But by then he'd fallen off scouts' radar. After TCU lost to Texas in the NCAA Super Regionals, Carpenter figured he'd played his final game.
That week, as Carpenter packed up his house and prepared to move back in with his parents, he got a call from an aunt to congratulate him. "I'm like, For what? She's like, You just got drafted," he says. He hurried over to his computer and discovered that St. Louis had taken him in the 13th round. The next day, the Cardinals called to tell him that he was headed to their rookie league team in Batavia, N.Y., and that his signing bonus was $1,000. "After taxes, it was like $620," he says.
The lack of greater interest in Carpenter is easy to understand: He was already 23 when the Cardinals picked him. "The age thing really hurts," says Girsch, who was then St. Louis’ head of baseball development at the time. Nevertheless, the Cardinals had identified Carpenter as an elite college hitter with good plate discipline and power, someone who could be inserted right away as a middle-of-the-order bat on a short-season team. When he won the organization's Minor League Hitter of the Year award in 2010, Carpenter says that Jeff Luhnow, then the VP of scouting and player development and now the GM in Houston, introduced him at the ceremony as someone who'd been drafted primarily to fill a roster spot. (“I was pretty comfortable drafting him that he wasn’t just going to be an [organizational] player,” Luhnow says when asked about those remarks, before adding with a laugh, “Maybe I was joking around with him. But I remember also referring in that speech to the fact that Albert Pujols was taken in the 13th round too.”)
Instead, Carpenter swiftly rose through the ranks, making his major league debut in June 2011. That spring, St. Louis manager Mike Shildt, who was running the Cardinals’ minor league camp in Jupiter, Fla., at the time, got a firsthand look at Carpenter’s dedication. “I’d leave every morning out of the team hotel at around 5 a.m.,” he says. “I come down, pitch dark, and there’s Matt standing outside in the parking lot, looking for a ride to the ballpark.” He made his first All-Star team two years later, leading the NL in hits and doubles and finishing fourth in the MVP voting—and he did so full-time at second base, a position he'd never played before. Within five years, Carpenter had gone from a long-shot prospect to a star with a six-year, $52 million contract, hitting postseason home runs off Clayton Kershaw.
"My whole career has been like that," says Carpenter, a three-time All-Star who posted a 130 OPS+ from 2012 to '16. "I’ve continuously exceeded expectations. I have nothing to lose because I'm not even supposed to be here."
"There are so many guys more talented who didn't make it because they didn't make the commitment he has," says Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta, a former TCU teammate and close friend. "He changed his life around."
Last year, in a season marred by leg and shoulder injuries, Carpenter hit a career-low .241. His struggles carried over this spring, as he hit .155 in April and homered just three times in his first six weeks. Searching for an explanation, Carpenter went to the front office in early May with a request: Do your analytics show something wrong with me? The answer he got from Girsch and company: No, so don't change a thing. "He was hitting the ball really hard," Girsch says. "For the most part, he was hitting into bad luck."
Indeed, Carpenter couldn’t buy a hit: His batting average on balls in play was .115 in his first 32 games. “You’re doing all the right stuff, you’re just not getting the results,” Girsch told him. That reassured Carpenter, who stuck with his approach and didn’t tinker with his swing or anything else. “I knew that if I continued to go out there and put the work in and play, it would eventually turn for me,” he says.
To reset mentally, Carpenter sat out most of a four-game series against the Padres while putting in his regular work in the batting cage. He rejoined the lineup against the Twins on May 15, going 0-for-4 as his average dropped to .140. The next day, he picked up three hits. Over the rest of the month he hit .393, then batted .313 with eight homers in June. Just like that, the slump was over—and the team's secret sauce hadn't even been introduced yet.
Before the season, Carpenter had asked Adam Wainwright, an avid gardener, to show him the horticultural ropes, as he was looking for a hobby outside of baseball. Wainwright went one further and promised to build Carpenter a garden at his St. Louis home that year. “He said, ‘No you won’t,’ and walked out of the room,” the veteran righthander recalls. But he stuck to his word. In late May, with Carpenter and the Cardinals on the road and Wainwright stuck at home on the disabled list and needing something to do, he secretly went to his teammate’s house, accompanied by his daughters, and planted several vegetables and herbs, including everything needed for salsa.
Carpenter uses a family recipe that he's tweaked over the years. The basics are all there—tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, garlic, cilantro—plus a few ingredients he won't divulge. His season had already turned around by the time he started taking it to the ballpark, but the salsa became the stuff of superstition when he brought some to Wrigley Field right after the All-Star break. Over five games he had nine hits and six homers in 17 at-bats, including three homers and two doubles in an 18–5 win on July 20. (He passed up a chance at a fourth homer by leaving the game after the sixth inning—unwilling, he says, to hit against the position players Chicago was by that point using on the mound.)
“Every pitch that I got, I swung at, and I didn’t miss it,” Carpenter says of that series. “One of the guys on the [Cubs] was like, ‘I’ve never been so excited to watch you come back up to the plate.’”
It was a needed boost for St. Louis. A week earlier, the team had axed Matheny and turned to Shildt, the bench coach, as his replacement to try to salvage a season marred by poor results and clubhouse controversies. With Carpenter leading the way, the Cardinals ripped off a 28–13 run from the All-Star break through the end of August to get back into the playoff race. “I think guys gained a lot of confidence and fed off Carp’s success,” says reliever Dominic Leone. “Without him, who knows where we would be?”
As St. Louis roared back into contention, Carpenter jumped into the MVP conversation.
Through Sept. 26, he leads the NL in home runs with 36—far and away a career high—and ranks third in OPS+ (147), fourth in doubles (41) and eighth in Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement among position players (5.0). His hard-hit rate of 49.6% is tops among all qualified hitters this season, and his line-drive rate of 27.2% ranks seventh.
Armed with tremendous plate discipline—"It's uncanny the pitches he knows are half an inch off the plate," Wainwright says—Carpenter doesn't chase balls often, swinging at only 21.4% of pitches he’s seen outside the strike zone, the ninth lowest figure in the majors. Even the dreaded shift can't stop him: Despite seeing three infielders on the right side 83.9% of the time, the pull-happy Carpenter has a .374 weighted on-base average in those situations thanks in part to the lowest ground-ball rate in the game (26.2%). Most notable, though, is that he's putting up big power numbers without topping Statcast's exit velocity leader board. “His home runs aren’t the most impressive things in the world,” Girsch says. “But he hits so many balls hard that a lot of them go over the fence.”
Those are the numbers behind Carpenter’s brilliant year, but the Cardinals clearly think there’s more to it than that. “It’s Gotta Be The Salsa” proclaim the shirts ubiquitous in the stands and the clubhouse: Hitting coach Mark Budaska excitedly yanked up his pullover to reveal one when asked about it. Marketed online by a video aping Nike's "It's Gotta Be the Shoes" commercial from 1989 (featuring Cards centerfielder Dexter Fowler in Spike Lee’s Mars Blackmon role and Carpenter as Michael Jordan), they're selling briskly, with proceeds going to a children's hospital in St. Louis. And fans in Missouri can now purchase their own jar of Carpenter's salsa from local grocery chain Schnucks.
Through it all, Carpenter keeps plugging away, at the plate and in the kitchen, where he makes about 12 to 15 jars of salsa for the clubhouse every week. With only a few games left in the season, St. Louis will need all the magic dip it can get: The team is scrapping with the Rockies for the second wild card and ends the year with a giant series against the rival Cubs in Wrigley. But how does Carpenter feel about the Cardinals' chances? He's certain that he has the stomach, and enough ingredients, to get them through October.