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Second to None: After switch, Matt Carpenter thrives at keystone corner with Cardinals

  • dec2a0b8b19576213f0f6a70670030ce.jpg

    St. Louis Cardinals' Matt Carpenter (13) is hit by a pitch as Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin reaches for it in the third inning of Game 3 of a National League division baseball series on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) (The Associated Press)

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    St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran, rear, leaps in celebration as second baseman Matt Carpenter (13) catches a popup by Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen for the last out of Game 4 of a National League baseball division series Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, in Pittsburgh. The Cardinals won 2-1 to even the best-of-five series. (AP Photo/Don Wright) (The Associated Press)

  • e9de96f755122f213f0f6a706700ac1d.jpg

    St. Louis Cardinals' Carlos Beltran (3) is congratulated by Matt Carpenter (13) after Beltran hit a three-run home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the third inning of Game 1 of baseball's National League division series on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (The Associated Press)

Matt Carpenter wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea initially when the St. Louis Cardinals told him they were moving him from third base to second in 2013.

The Cardinals made the move to clear up a logjam at third. Rather than have to split at-bats between Carpenter and David Freese, St. Louis was searching for a way to get them both in the lineup.

It worked out better than Carpenter or the Cardinals could have imagined. The leadoff man led the National League with 199 hits, smacked 55 doubles and made the All-Star team. He was just as much of a find in the field, where his soft hands made it appear he'd been playing second for years.

The transition, however, was harder than it looked.

"It was a challenge," Carpenter said. "Obviously, I had never played the middle infield, never played second base in my life. To be able to convert from corner infield, corner outfield guy to middle infield was definitely a challenge. It's something we put a lot of work in."

Carpenter credited infield instructor Jose Oquendo for helping him along the way, while manager Mike Matheny praised Carpenter's work ethic for making the switch appear effortless.

"He trusted what we were trying to do," Matheny said. "He believed in himself and believed that he could help us out, and he has done a terrific job for us."

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GRIFFIN'S OUTLOOK: It might not matter this season, but Oakland right-hander A.J. Griffin is working his way back from elbow tendinitis that kept him off the roster for the division series against Detroit.

"He played a little catch the other day and feels pretty good," manager Bob Melvin said before Game 3 on Monday. "Probably not 100 percent, but I think he's going to play catch again today. I'm not sure — I don't think it's off a mound yet, but he's felt better than he has postgame his last three starts."

Griffin went 14-10 during the regular season. He could still be an option during the postseason depending on how far the Athletics advance.

"He would have to throw at least one full bullpen," Melvin said. "He would have to be comfortable and throw a pretty strenuous bullpen where he's using his pitches, to see how his arm responds the next day."

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BETTING ON THE MAN: The numbers screamed for Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to pinch-hit for slugger Pedro Alvarez in Game 3 of the NL division series Sunday.

The Cardinals brought in overpowering left-handed reliever Kevin Siegrist with runners on first and second with one out in a tie game. The left-handed-hitting Alvarez came in batting just .180 against lefties this season and was 0 for 5 against Siegrist. The Pirates had right-handed Gaby Sanchez — who hit .333 against lefties — in the dugout ready to go.

Instead, Hurdle opted to keep Alvarez in the game. The result? A sharp RBI single to right field that scored pinch-runner Josh Harrison and helped the Pirates to a 5-3 win.

Hurdle insisted he wasn't trying to buck convention but instead stick with the ethos that he's managed by since the day he took over in December 2010.

"Belief," Hurdle said. "It's part of his growth. (It's about) giving young players opportunities to do meaningful things in meaningful situations."

The decision to stick with Alvarez wasn't the only time Hurdle went against the book in Game 3. He inserted Jordy Mercer for Clint Barmes at shortstop in the seventh inning even though Mercer committed a couple of critical errors late in the season. Mercer ended up making a pair of sensational plays, including a pirouette on a grounder up the middle by Jon Jay that was turned into an out.

"I feel like there's no doubt that he believes in me," Mercer said. "I never lost that really, at any point this season."

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LUCKY CHARM: When a tired Boston Red Sox team was on the West Coast in August, Jake Peavy was walking to the ballpark in San Francisco when something caught his eye.

Inside a smoke shop was a 3-foot wooden Indian.

The pitcher initially kept walking, but soon stopped.

"My heritage is American Indian," Peavy said Monday. "I kind of looked back and he was still looking at me. I did a U-turn and I went in and asked how much he cost. We did some negotiating and I carried him on to the ballpark."

Several key Red Sox were injured at the time, and Peavy made up an elaborate story about how the statue's spirit had healing powers.

Even though Boston lost to the Giants that day, things soon turned around and the "Chief" became a clubhouse fixture both home and away.

"He's holding some cigars in his hand," Peavy said. "When we do hopefully reach our goal, we're going to smoke those cigars."

And just like several Red Sox players, Peavy said, "Chief" also now has a beard.

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POSTSEASON PUIG: Yasiel Puig is finding out for the first time just how exacting the playoffs can be.

The Los Angeles Dodgers rookie went 8 for 17 with five runs and two RBIs in the NL division series against Atlanta. His eighth-inning double preceded Juan Uribe's go-ahead homer that sent the Dodgers into the NLCS with a 4-3 victory Monday night in Game 4.

"There is a lot more focus and more intensity on every little detail," Puig said through a translator before the game. "I noticed that each pitcher is focusing more on each pitch that he throws. Everyone's trying to give their all in every single play."

The 22-year-old Cuban outfielder is hitting .471 in the postseason following his breakout performance after getting called up from the minors in early June. Puig credited his teammates for helping him mature over the last few months.

"I give a lot of thanks to them for helping me concentrate and focus on the details I need to focus on to make sure I'm always giving it my best," he said.

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ZIM'S PLAYOFF ZEN: Tampa Bay senior adviser Don Zimmer is amazed that the low-budget Rays are in the playoffs for the fourth time in six years.

"It's some organization, I'll tell you that," said Zimmer, who is completing his 65th year in baseball and is part of his 19th postseason team.

Zimmer joined the Rays in 2004 after a successful run from 1996-2003 as the bench coach for New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, a stretch that included four World Series titles.

"I've been here 10 years and I never saw this coming," Zimmer said.

Zimmer has influenced many in baseball, including close friend and Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who played on the 1989 NL East champion Chicago Cubs that Zimmer managed.

Girardi, whose contract expires at the end of October, has talked with Yankees officials about a new deal. In addition, the Cubs and Washington Nationals are thought to have serious interest in Girardi to fill open managerial spots.

"He's in a pretty good spot," Zimmer said. "Well-deserved. A very brilliant guy, a smart man and a good manager."

Zimmer thinks Girardi could make a decision in the next few days.

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