Matt Carpenter’s two-run homer was the difference. (David J. Phillip / AP)

With three home runs, six RBIs and a .400 average, Carlos Beltran has been the most consistent source of offense for the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs and added to his astounding career postseason numbers.

But in the first inning of Wednesday’s NLCS Game 3 in St. Louis, Beltran strained his left knee, opening the door for another member of the Cardinals’ deep, versatile bench to step into the spotlight.

Matt Carpenter, a rookie reserve infielder with only 10 career starts in right field, replaced Beltran in right. And the 26-year-old immediately made the most of his opportunity. In his first at-bat, in the third inning, Carpenter crushed a 429-foot, two-run home run to right center that sent the Cardinals on their way to a 3-1 win and a 2-1 series lead.

“It shows a lot about his character to be ready in that spot,” Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse said. “He could probably start for anybody, but he has to come off the bench here, and he handles it well.”

Role players always seem to step up for the Redbirds come October. Last year it was David Freese who broke out with a playoff record 21 RBIs and was named World Series and NLCS MVP. This season, 24-year-old rookie shortstop Pete Kozma came through with the game-winning two-run single to knock out the Nationals in Game 7. Kozma is playing in place of injured veteran Rafael Furcal. If Beltran misses Thursday’s Game 4, Carpenter has earned the start.

“He’s just been so versatile, there are times when we’re looking to see how we can get him in there,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “That’s a pretty strong statement with the lineup we have.”

Beltran said (via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) that he felt a sharp pain “close to the knee” as he was running out a groundout. Although an MRI came back negative, Beltran said he was “very sore” after the game but hopes to be back in the lineup for Game 4.

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