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THE SECRET SAUCE FUELING THE CARDINALS' RUN TO THE POSTSESASON ISN'T SO SECRET: IT'S MATT CARPENTER, THEIR MVP-CANDIDATE FIRST BASEMAN AND SALSA SAVANT

IT WAS late August, and Matt Carpenter couldn't stop vomiting. He left two games before the seventh inning, and when he reported to Busch Stadium on the third day of his illness, the Cardinals' first baseman was so dehydrated that trainers hooked 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.

"That was tough, but I really like winning," says Carpenter, who forced his salsa down that night and stayed in the lineup for all nine innings, going 2 for 5 against the Reds. He also belted his National League--leading 35th home run and lifted 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. Coming out of the break, they dropped three of five games in a series against the Cubs, falling a season-worst 8½ games out of first place in the NL Central. Now they're squarely in the playoff hunt, and everyone in St. Louis is saying, "It's gotta be the salsa."

But the team's turnaround has less to do with the Mexican dip 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," 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.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Carpenter 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, 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 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 he became a model student, too. "He was a different human being in every possible area," Schlossnagle says. The same fanatical discipline Carpenter had once shown in baseball now carried over to his personal life. "I haven't seen Matt eat a dessert since this all happened," Rick says. Matt's daughter, Kinley, turned two in May, and at her party he let her put a piece of cake in his mouth, 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 he prepared to move back in with his parents, Carpenter 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 the head of baseball development at the time. 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.

Instead, Carpenter swiftly rose through the ranks, making his major league debut in 2011. 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 who hit 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 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. 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, don't change a thing. "He was hitting the ball really hard," Girsch says. "For the most part, he was hitting into bad luck."

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, and then he batted .313 with eight homers in June. 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. Stuck at home on the disabled list while the Cardinals were on the road in late May, the pitcher went over to Carpenter's house 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. 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.

Through Sept. 13, Carpenter led the NL in home runs, doubles and OPS+. His hard-hit rate of 49.9% is tops among all qualified hitters this season, and his line-drive rate of 27.6% ranks fifth. 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. (He's struck out 139 times in 617 plate appearances.) Even the shift can't stop him: Despite seeing three infielders on the right side 83.1% of the time, the pull-happy Carpenter has a .384 weighted on-base average in those situations thanks in part to the lowest ground-ball rate in the game (25.4%). Most notable, though, is that he's putting up big power numbers without topping Statcast's exit velocity leader board.

St. Louis was 4½ games out first place, and held a one-game lead for the last wild-card spot, on morning of Sept. 14. it's gotta be the salsa shirts are ubiquitous in the stands and in the clubhouse: Hitting coach Mark Budaska excitedly yanked up his pullover to reveal one when recently 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 the 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 will soon be able to 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. How does he feel about the Cardinals' chances? He's certain that he has the stomach, and enough ingredients, to get them through October.

"THERE ARE SO MANY GUYS MORE TALENTED WHO DIDN'T MAKE IT," SAYS ARRIETA. "HE CHANGED HIS LIFE AROUND."

TOM VERDUCCI'S AWARD PICKS

MVP

MOOKIE BETTS

OF, Boston Red Sox

At 5'9", 180 pounds, he is pound-for-pound the game's greatest hitter. He'll be the shortest player to slug over .600 since Roy Campanella and the first 30-30 batting champ.

CHRISTIAN YELICH

OF, Milwaukee Brewers

He has played all three outfield positions, stolen 19 bases in 23 tries, and has a ridiculous .440/.517/.780 slash line in two-out RISP situations.

CY YOUNG

BLAKE SNELL

LHP, Tampa Bay Rays

Snell—19-5 with a 2.03 ERA—has baseball's most unhittable pitch: He threw 274 curveballs down and in to righties, who went 0 for 55 trying to hit them.

JACOB DEGROM

RHP, New York Mets

Cover up the freakishly misleading record (8--9), and he wins clearly. At 1.71, his ERA gap over the Nats' Max Scherzer (--.60) and the Phils' Aaron Nola (--.71) is too big to ignore.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

SHOHEI OHTANI

RHP/OF, Los Angeles Angels

Ohtani's once-in-a-century two-way gig—he's the first player since Babe Ruth to hit 15 homers and pitch 50 innings—gives him a huge edge in WAR over the competition.

RONALD ACUÑA JR.

OF, Atlanta Braves

The Nats' Juan Soto, 19, has slight edges in batting average and OPS, but Acuña has more steals, home runs and total bases and is the better defender.