Mujica, Craig, Carpenter prove their All-Star worth
Less-heralded Cardinals trio critical to St. Louis' success this season
NEW YORK -- The biggest crowds gathered around the biggest names, leaving Edward Mujica, Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig at least a few quiet moments to quickly take in the setting.
Monday's period of media availability, one of the first official events of the two-day All-Star extravaganza, provided the three first-time All-Stars the opportunity to survey their company and to begin to believe that they belonged. Craig and Mujica quickly snapped pictures to document the occasion.
The three may not have the career credentials of teammates Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran, but they have been critical in positioning the Cardinals as the team to beat in the National League Central.
"It's kind of just overwhelming," Craig said on Monday, a day that started with the Cardinals' All-Stars arriving at their hotels just before 5 a.m. ET. "I think it hit me when I got on the bus over here, with basically the whole National League All-Star roster. It was a 'who's who' of the league. It's a crazy thing."
Only a year earlier, all three had merely been trying to find a permanent fit.
Carpenter had carved out a utility role, but one that did not come with everyday at-bats. Mujica was stuck in Miami with a team on the decline and a baby on the way. Craig, who had missed a chunk of the year due to injury, just wanted to stay on the field.
All three factored into the Cardinals' long-term plans. Few, however, would have anticipated how immediate and critical those contributions would be.
"This experience kind of brings that to your attention a little bit," Carpenter said. "It has been a crazy ride. And when I think about it, it is pretty amazing where I'm at compared to where I came from."
The organization's well-laid blueprint could have crumbled in March, a month that began with Rafael Furcal needing to excuse himself from all baseball activities and ended under the reality that the Cardinals would open the season without closer Jason Motte. Only a few weeks earlier, Chris Carpenter had been lost.
But adversity led to opportunity, from which some of baseball's best first-half stories have since emerged.
Matt Carpenter proved himself a capable second baseman in Spring Training, and later surfaced as the ideal leadoff hitter. No longer was Furcal's void felt. Carpenter's .330 average and .405 on-base percentage from the top spot are not closely challenged by anyone in the league.
When Motte's job was insufficiently handled by Mitchell Boggs, Mujica took over. He converted his first 21 save opportunities, and the bullpen almost immediately stabilized. He has 26 saves now and a WHIP (0.73) that is the lowest among all league relievers.
Craig found a permanent spot as the cleanup hitter and, with Lance Berkman gone, a home at first base. Questions about how the Cardinals would replace Albert Pujols are asked no more. Craig's .489 average with runners in scoring position and 74 RBIs in 90 games have obviously tempered that loss.
Each bided his time -- particularly Mujica, now with his fourth organization -- which makes their All-Star appearances as much a validation of their journey as a nod to three months of above-average success.
"It's unbelievable," Mujica said. "You're going to have that sticker forever. Everybody is going to see you on the street, and they're going to know you, and they're going to call you an All-Star."
Mujica, 29, began dreaming big back in the Minors, when it was clear that his path to the Majors would be as a reliever. He hoped it would one day culminate in the opportunity to close. He admittedly never dared dream that being an All-Star could follow.
The invitation came late -- Mujica was named to the team on Sunday as a replacement for Wainwright, who will not pitch -- but that took nothing from the honor.
"When I got here last year, [manager] Mike [Matheny] gave me the confidence I always talk about," Mujica said. "It's unbelievable. I never would have thought I would have made the All-Star [team] this year. They gave me the opportunity to throw in the ninth inning, and we've made it happen."
Carpenter will share these two days in New York with family, including his father, Rick, who was instrumental in helping his son carve a place in the lineup this season. The two worked together almost daily this winter during Carpenter's crash-course lessons at second base.
He carried that work to Spring Training, where he proved to the Cardinals that he had sufficiently groomed himself for the position.
"I was confident in my ability and knew that if I had a chance to play that I could be a successful player, but what that meant, I didn't know," Carpenter said. "I'm lying if I told you that I thought I was going to be an All-Star second baseman and do all these things."
Craig's standout season may be the least surprising of the three, as it was never a question that his offensive ability would be enough for this level. It was getting through the road blocks of injuries and depth chart placement that had been his challenge.
"It's something where I've had to be extremely patient getting my spot in the everyday lineup," Craig said. "Going into last year, I wasn't guaranteed a spot to play every day. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity because Lance went down. That was unfortunate for our team, but I had a chance to play, and I had a good year last year. Things all kind of happened fast from there."
The final phase of All-Star Game voting will again have fans participating in the official voting for the Ted Williams All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award presented by Chevrolet. During the Midsummer Classic, fans will vote exclusively online at MLB.com via the 2013 All-Star Game MLB.com MVP Vote, and their voice will represent 20 percent of the official vote determining the recipient of the Arch Ward Trophy.
The 2013 All-Star Game will be played at Citi Field on Tuesday. Come to MLB.com for extensive online coverage of the All-Star Week festivities.
The 84th All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS, and worldwide by partners in more than 200 countries via MLB International's independent feed. ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide national radio coverage of the All-Star Game. MLB Network and SiriusXM also will also provide comprehensive All-Star Week coverage. For more information, please visit allstargame.com.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.