Back in business
A year removed from injury, Matt Carpenter's back in the swing of things.
By Mark Wright '07 (MS)
Cal State Fullerton wanted no part of TCU’s Matt Carpenter.
In a game against the Horned Frogs at Lupton Stadium in late February, the Titans elected to intentionally walk Carpenter rather than pitching to him with a runner in scoring position.
TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle downplayed the situation, stressing that the move by Fullerton, a perennial college baseball powerhouse, was primarily motivated by the fact that freshman Aaron Schultz was next in the batting order.
Still, the moment signified something bigger. A year removed from Tommy John surgery, Carpenter is back. But the redshirt junior from Sugarland is not the same player who entered the 2007 season with high expectations.
By all accounts, he’s better. Carpenter has shed 50 pounds, replacing his bulk with strength and agility – traits that should make him more powerful at the plate and more durable in the field. And away from the diamond, he’s become a more dedicated student.
“He’s a different guy,” Schlossnagle said.
The outward changes are a reflection of the inner journey Carpenter has taken since a February day in 2007 when the player had to come to grips with an injury that ultimately changed the way he viewed himself.
The pain had been nagging at him since before his junior season began, and it was only getting worse. Carpenter couldn’t make the usual hard throws from third base, prompting Schlossnagle to move the infielder to first base. And in the batter’s box, Carpenter didn’t display the same pop he did as his sophomore, when he belted 10 doubles, drove in 36 runs and batted .349.
“It got to where I couldn’t even sleep. I was in too much pain,” Carpenter said.
Seven games into the season, the pain became unbearable. During a tournament in South Carolina, Carpenter told Schlossnagle he needed to come out of the game. Two days later, a doctor diagnosed Carpenter with a torn ligament in his right elbow and recommended a surgical procedure that would sideline him for the rest of the season.
“I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed at the time,” Schlossnagle said. “But for Matt Carpenter’s life it was a reawakening.”
During his recovery, Carpenter, who is known as one of the most vocal players on the team, decided to listen to the voice inside his head – the one that told him that maybe he could have avoided the injury if he had taken better care of himself.
“I felt like I was I a bit out of shape last year, honestly,” Carpenter said. “I wanted to make sure I am at my best.”
He decided to shed his excess weight and work on becoming both physically and mentally stronger. To help in that process, he consulted a sports psychologist. “I’ve seen players have trouble dealing with the mental aspects of coming back from an injury,” Carpenter said. “I didn’t want that to be me.”
What Carpenter had the most trouble dealing with was the disappointment of watching from the dugout as the Horned Frogs enjoyed a historic season in which they won the Mountain West Conference, set a single-season record for wins and gave the host Rice Owls a memorable tussle in the NCAA Regional Tournament.
“Being a competitive person, I feel I could’ve played a role in helping the team,” Carpenter said. “It was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do.”
When times got especially rough, he turned to his dad, who was his coach at Elkins High School, for reassurance. “He told me everything happens for a reason and God has a plan for me,” Carpenter said. “He told me to look at the bright side. This is supposed to be my junior year in 2008.”
Carpenter’s injury healed gradually. By late last spring, he began fielding ground balls. He started throwing late in the fall and by early February he had regained his usual throwing motion and velocity.
“It’s basically like having a new arm,” Carpenter said. “I feel like I had to re-train myself to throw.”
His return has been met with enthusiasm by his teammates, including junior outfielder Matt McGuirk, who considers Carpenter the loudest teammate he’s ever had. Carpenter talks constantly during practices and games. His utterances are often nonsensical, but they always provide a positive boost, McGuirk said.
“He’s the type of guy who always makes funny comments,” McGuirk said. “He’s great at talking to guys about what they need to do. And he’s a great leader.”
McGuirk said Carpenter is the definitive clutch player – the guy you want at the plate with runners in scoring position and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. No one knows that better than Schlossnagle, who calls Carpenter his “security blanket” on the field.
“You try not to have favorites, but you’re human,” Schlossnagle said. “I’ve really enjoyed coaching Matt Carpenter and watching him evolve as a person.”
After a yearlong journey, Carpenter finds himself in peak shape, ready for anything that life – or an opposing team – can throw at him.
“I’ve never been more prepared for a season and, truthfully, anything in my life,” Carpenter said. “I sat out for a year and I feel ready to make my comeback and have a great year.”
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