By John Rohde // SoonerSports.com
Oklahoma junior Kolbey Carpenter never has been one to say much. Just give him a position on the baseball field and a spot in the batting order and he’ll handle it from there.
“He’s a very serious kid. Very quiet,” Sooners second-year coach Pete Hughes said of Carpenter. “He goes about his business in a quiet way.”
Carpenter has been somewhat of a gypsy since arriving at OU. He has started at five different positions and also been used at designated hitter. His 114 career starts (though April 12) have come at first base (35 times), DH (34), second base (32), third base (seven), left field (five) and right field (one).
Carpenter was found in the bottom half of the batting order until March 21 of this season, when Hughes made him the Sooners’ lead-off man for the second game of the Texas Tech series in Norman. Junior center fielder Craig Aikin, who batted first or second in every game since his arrival, was moved from leadoff to the No. 3 hole in the lineup.
Hughes’ move paid immediate dividends as Carpenter went 4-for-4 with three RBI and a home run in his first game as the leadoff hitter. He has remained atop the batting order ever since, a stretch during which the Sooners (24-14) have gone 9-5 overall with an 8-3 mark in Big 12 play.
Throughout my entire life I’ve just wanted to go out there and do my best and not try to really stand out. Go as hard as I can and do as good of a job as I can.
In OU’s series win at Texas this past weekend, Carpenter drove in the first two runs to lead the Sooners to a 3-2 victory in the decisive third game on Sunday. “I like the move and I’m going to continue to stay with it, but Kolbey’s made it an easy transition,” Hughes said. “We can get a little power at the top of the order, get more runners on-base for our RBI guys, too.”
Carpenter’s keen batting eye and his ability to make pitchers work were the primary reasons Hughes placed him atop the order. “He sees a ton of pitches,” Hughes explained of Carpenter. “He led our team in the number of pitches per plate appearance last year and he’s doing the same this year. He has a knack of working counts really, really deep, and he gets on base a ton because of that. He’s very patient and very rarely swings at bad pitches and that’s why he gets so deep in the counts. That’s why we have him at the top of our lineup. I just like him up there.”
Asked what he tries to do differently as a lead-off hitter, Carpenter said, “I just kind of had to change my approach into just getting on base. When I was batting in the 6-hole, that was a little more of a role where I had to drive guys in. Now I have more of a role of trying to get on base. My goal all year has been to get on base, but now it’s more important so guys behind me can drive me in.”
Carpenter is second on the team with a .340 batting average. “It’s definitely been enjoyable,” Carpenter said of batting lead-off. “It’s something I wasn’t used to, but I’m really enjoying it so far. I think it’s worked out well for us when I’ve been able to get on. It’s good to be able to start rallies for us.”
Carpenter’s career slugging percentage was just .394 his first two years at OU. So far this season, however, he leads the Sooners in slugging percentage (.542), total bases (78), home runs (six) and is tied for the team lead in triples (three). “I’ve got some good pitches to hit and I’ve been fortunate enough that some of them have gone over the fence, but I’m just going up there trying not to do too much,” Carpenter said. “If the hits go over the fence or through the infield, I’m happy either way.”
At the outset of his sophomore season, Carpenter’s primary position was on the bench.
Carpenter was a proven commodity to former OU coach Sunny Golloway, who recruited him out of West (Texas) High School, where the 6-foot, 175-pound Carpenter posted a career batting average of .448 and set a Class 3A state record with 48 home runs. (Carpenter also played three years of football at West and was first-team All-District quarterback as a senior.)
As a freshman under Golloway, Carpenter played 54 games (50 starts) for the 2013 Sooners, who went 3-0 to win the NCAA Regional at Blacksburg, Va., before getting swept by LSU in the best-of-3 Super Regional in Baton Rouge, La. Carpenter started 23 games each at first base and at DH, three at third base and one in right field, while batting everywhere from fifth to ninth in the order.
Golloway then left to become coach at Auburn and Hughes was hired away from Virginia Tech to become the Sooners’ new coach on June 27, 2013. When Hughes first laid eyes on Carpenter, he was recovering from surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder. “He didn’t practice with us in the fall because he was coming back from shoulder surgery. I didn’t know what kind of player he was,” Hughes admitted.
Carpenter had fully recovered before last season began, but became the odd man out when Hughes chose to start left-handed hitting infielder Keach Ballard, who also excelled defensively.
Beginning with an 18-inning victory at Oklahoma State on April 15 last season – and with the Sooners riding a four-game losing streak – Hughes decided to switch to a more potent offensive lineup and started Carpenter at second base in place of Ballard. Carpenter wound up going 3-for-8 with a home run in the seventh inning and knocked in the game-winning run with a double in the 18th. He has been a fixture in the lineup ever since.
For the soft-spoken Carpenter, it’s never been about him. It’s always about the team. He leads by example and couldn’t care less if the spotlight shines on him. “Throughout my entire life I’ve just wanted to go out there and do my best and not try to really stand out,” Carpenter said. “Go as hard as I can and do as good of a job as I can.”
Regardless of what transpires, Carpenter’s emotions remain steady. “Don’t get fooled by it, though. There’s some toughness under there,” Hughes said. “He does love to compete. He’s not afraid of the competitive moment. He’s got a fire that burns. He’s a quiet leader all the way, He personifies quiet leader. At first it may look like he’s not competitive or the atypical high-energy athlete. Sometimes that’s misconstrued as being non-competitive, but that’s not him. In many situations last year he would always make the pressure play or get the pressure hit. He loves to compete, but he does it in his own way. He’s definitely his own man and that’s a quality I respect about him. I like quiet guys who don’t draw attention to themselves and guys who like to work. Those kind of personalities generally are successful and those are the kind of kids I like to be around.”
Don't get fooled by it, though. There's some thoughness under there. He does love to compete. He's not afraid of the moment. He's got a fire that burns.
Pete Hughes, OU head coach
Carpenter and junior left fielder Hunter Haley have been roommates since their freshman year. “He’s pretty laid back,” Haley said of Carpenter. “He just plays the same every day, whether he’s doing good or whether he’s doing bad. That’s how he’s always been as long as I’ve known him. That’s a good quality to have. He doesn’t let stuff get to him. He leads by the way he performs. He does all the right things on and off the field, and that’s more than guys who are really ‘rah-rah’ and try to talk all the time.”
Carpenter’s quiet demeanor works well for him on the baseball field, but internalizing a personal tragedy is another matter.
On the night of April 17, 2013, there was an ammonium nitrate explosion at the West (Texas) Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility located in Carpenter’s hometown, roughly 18 miles north of Waco. Emergency crews already were responding to a fire at the facility when the explosion occurred. Fifteen people were killed, more than 160 were injured, and more than 150 buildings were damaged or destroyed in the blast.
Carpenter’s mother, Ashley, telephoned her son shortly after the fire started. “I didn’t think anything of it,” Carpenter said at the time. “I thought it was just a fire. I didn't think anyone was affected by it. As the night went on, I was getting more phone calls and people were sending me pictures and telling me there was an explosion and it was bad, and that half the town was destroyed.”
Among those killed were Dallas Fire-Rescue Capt. Kenneth Harris and volunteer firefighter Buck Uptmor, who were both Carpenter family friends. Harris' son, Heath, was Carpenter’s close friend throughout high school. The next morning, Carpenter texted Heath Harris, who said his father still had not been located. That’s when Carpenter decided to go home.
The incident happened during an open date. The Sooners had an upcoming three-game home series against New Orleans and Carpenter was excused.
Born in Waco, Carpenter and his family moved to West (with a population around 3,000) when he was 13 years old. “It was all just a shock at the time,” Carpenter said. “To come from such a small town and to have that type of tragedy was pretty tough to deal with. Now the whole town is starting to overcome it and the town is being rebuilt.”
Turns out the storage facility was a bomb waiting to explode. The fertilizer company stated it stored 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on the site.Federal law requires Homeland Security be notified when more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate is stored with combustible material.
Carpenter and fellow residents were unaware of the potential danger. “Honestly, I never even thought about it,” Carpenter said. “We saw the plant every day when we went to school. I guess no one ever really thought that could happen. As kids we never really thought it.”
Haley recalled Carpenter returning to West after the explosion, but doesn’t remember discussing the tragedy in great detail with Carpenter. “We talked about it a little bit, but never too much because I could kind of tell it was pretty tough on him,” said Haley, who hails from Nacogdoches, Texas. “I didn’t really know what to say, really. It was a tough time for him. He didn’t let it affect him that much (in baseball), though. He handled it well.”
Upon his return to Norman, Carpenter couldn’t wait to get back on the field. “Baseball definitely helped me get my mind off things,” he admitted.
Carpenter has played every position except shortstop, center field, pitcher and catcher for the Sooners. Where else might we someday find him?
In high school, Carpenter excelled at shortstop and pitcher. The only position he has never played is catcher. “I’m pretty versatile. I can pretty much play anywhere,” Carpenter said. “I wouldn’t be opposed to pitching again, but I think my pitching career is done. The way I look at it, I’m available wherever he (Hughes) needs me.”
|About John Rohde|
|John Rohde is a respected name on the Oklahoma sports scene and will provide regular features for SoonerSports.com. Voted Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year five times, Rohde has covered OU football and basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder, OKC/New Orleans Hornets, Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, the Final Four, Masters and PGA Tour. He spent over 26 years for The Oklahoman, serving as a columnist and beat writer. He can be heard on 107.7 The Franchise, the flagship station for OU Athletics weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m.|