ST. LOUIS — He bats these nights, night after night, at the top of the most talented lineup in baseball.Despite being swept by the Texas Rangers over the weekend, the St. Louis Cardinals are loaded. Right fielder Carlos Beltran is a nine-time All-Star. First baseman Allen Craig, otherwise known as Albert Pujols’ successor, has 58 RBIs. Catcher Yadier Molina – the catcher! – is batting .353. This is a team that scored more runs last year without Pujols than it had in the three previous seasons with him.And atop this year’s Cardinals batting order, a lineup that is flying high again with All-Star candidates, is second baseman Matt Carpenter."I know – it’s crazy," Carpenter said Sunday afternoon.It seems crazy to him now because Carpenter remembers what it was all like back then, back in his junior year at TCU. He was the Horned Frogs’ third baseman and, though he had batted .349 as a sophomore, it was the quietest .349 that a former high school All-American could have imagined.Instead of pounding out extra-base hits, he was, by his own admission, burning the midnight oil, pounding Coors Lights. His time in the TCU weight room had been far surpassed by his trips through the drive-thru at Whataburger. "Just being a normal college kid,," Carpenter said. "My diet was out of control. I was being the typical college kid, drinking too many beers, all that stuff."His weight had ballooned to 240."He was still, I would say, an above-average college player," said TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle. "But he was headed down a path where he was not going to be a professional prospect in any way. He could barely play third base for us, in terms of his size. He was good at it, but he wasn't as good as he could be."Schlossnagle remembers the throw that brought Carpenter’s college days to a crossroads. It was a preseason intrasquad game, and Carpenter made a throw from third base – and winced. "He started shaking his arm, and I knew something was wrong," Schlossnagle recalled.The doctor’s diagnosis was that Carpenter needed Tommy John elbow surgery. He wouldn’t be playing baseball in 2007. Instead of a pat on the shoulder, though, Schlossnagle arranged an intervention -- the head coach, the player and both of Carpenter’s parents. "I said, ‘Matt, you can either pout about this, or you can truly make this an opportunity and treat it as kind of a slap in the face to change your life."As Schlossnagle admitted, "Most college coaches have those kinds of conversations every year. You're trying to get a kid who has potential to just do the right thing in all phases of his life."All too often, the coach’s advice falls on stubborn ears. Carpenter proved, however, to be the dramatic exception."That was the defining moment," Carpenter said Sunday. "He put it on paper and showed me. I was thinking, ‘Man, my time here is running out. Guys who I came into TCU with were getting drafted as juniors and leaving, and I’m sitting here with a bum elbow.’"He put it on paper. You can do one of two things at this point. You can continue on your way, and you might graduate and be here for five years, but you'll never be the guy you think you can be. Or you can take this path and dedicate yourself in the weight room, eat right, and use this as a motivation to change your lifestyle and see what happens."Overnight, it seemed, Carpenter went from the pizza line to the weight room. From the campus bars to the batting cages."On Friday and Saturday nights, when normal college kids were doing normal stuff, I was sneaking into the batting cage at our field -- borderline breaking in, actually -- and hitting all night."The excess pounds cascaded from Carpenter’s body quickly. His redshirt senior season at TCU ended with him leading the Frogs into their first NCAA Super Regional.After going undrafted for two seasons, Carpenter was picked by the Cardinals in the 13th round of the 2009 draft – the 399th player selected. He signed for a bonus of $1,000.But his work ethic continued. In his first season, Carpenter rose through three levels of the St. Louis farm system. "Guys like Tony La Russa and (current manager) Mike Matheny just fell in love with him," Schlossnagle said. "I remember La Russa telling me that they asked him if he had ever played left field. Of course, Matt told them he’d do whatever they want."The next day, around 6 a.m., Matt was getting some swings in the cages, so he could have time to get some extra work in the outfield. "Tony La Russa said, ‘Nobody beats me to the field at spring training . . . and Carpenter did."The question in St. Louis soon became not whether Carpenter could play big league ball, but at which position. Though he had never played the position before, even in high school, Carpenter was asked last off-season if he would be willing to try second base.He didn’t blink. In the latest All-Star voting results, Carpenter was third among National League second basemen. There’s a growing voting bloc that seems to think the ex-Frog should be first."It doesn't surprise me, because I know he's good player," Schlossnagle said. "I know he's going to work harder than anybody, and I know he's a tremendous teammate."It does surprise me in a way, though, because I know how hard the game is at that level. When you look at a guy who, for his first couple of years at TCU, could barely play third base, and now he’s made himself into an All-Star potential second baseman. Plus he's played left field, right field, first, third and second for maybe the best team in baseball."He's the poster child for everything you want your program to be about. We couldn't be more proud of him."Carpenter is 27, and as he admitted Sunday, "Yeah, it really was crazy how quick I got up here and the success I’ve had. And it’s all since that time in my life, that decision."You find yourself doing the right things, and things falling into place, and you look back and think, ‘Man, I wish I would have done this earlier.’"But then I realize that I don't know if I would be the guy I am if I hadn't had to come from that low point and learn the lessons I learned."It's been a crazy ride."Matt Carpenter’s next stop should be the All-Star Game.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton