Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 20, 2011

Cardinals’ Carpenter Rises To The Occasion

As every fan knows by now, in late August the St. Louis Cardinals were 10 ½ games behind the Atlanta Braves in the race for the National League Wild Card. At that point they were actually closer to winning their division, as they sat 10 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. On August 24th one number-crunching website gave St. Louis just a 1.3% chance of making the playoffs. But that was before the Cardinals won 23 of their final 32 games while the Braves were collapsing into a 9-18 September.

After winning the Wild Card race on the final day of the regular season, St. Louis toppled mighty Philadelphia in five games in the NLDS, and then ousted Milwaukee in six games in the NLCS. Wednesday night their improbable run continued, as they won Game One of the World Series 3-2. If within the next week the Cardinals should emerge as the extraordinarily unlikely champion, there will be plenty of accolades to go around.

There will be talk of Lance Berkman’s resurgent season. Thought by many to be washed up after 2010, Berkman signed a one-year bargain deal with St. Louis, and moved to right field after a career at first base. He not only handled the new position adequately; he also hit .301 for the year, five points above his career average, while slugging 31 home runs. There will also be deserved praise for Albert Pujols, who marked what is potentially his final season in a Cardinals’ uniform by hitting 37 homers while batting .299. Others will point to the contributions of infielder David Freese, who is tearing through the post-season after missing a big chunk of regular play due to injury. Named the MVP of the NLCS after going 12 for 22 at the plate, Freese is batting .429 through the first two rounds of the playoffs and World Series Game One.

And of course there will be no shortage of commentators searching for an even higher pedestal on which to place manager Tony LaRussa. The cerebral LaRussa is the first manager to win multiple pennants in both leagues and just the second to skipper a team from both leagues to a World Series championship. Of the 576 men who have managed a big league franchise, only Connie Mack and John McGraw have won more games; and sometime in the first half of next season LaRussa will pass McGraw for second place on the all-time list. In the NLCS against the Brewers LaRussa made a record 28 pitching changes, with no St. Louis starter making it past the 5th inning. He was at it again in the first game of the Series, getting six innings out of starter Chris Carpenter before calling on five different relievers to record the final nine outs. But for all the emphasis on offense and LaRussa’s masterful use of his bullpen, if the Cardinals do go on to win the player most deserving of recognition could well be Carpenter.

At age 36, the big right-hander from New Hampshire is likely in the later innings of a career that will always be shadowed by that old question, “what if?” At the end of 2002, after six indifferent and injury-riddled seasons in Toronto, Carpenter left to sign with St. Louis. But he then missed all of the 2003 season due to a torn shoulder ligament. After pitching well during the 2004 regular season, he was sidelined for the Cardinals’ post-season run to the World Series with arm trouble. He made but a single appearance on Opening Day of 2007 before suffering an elbow injury that required surgery, and suffered a further setback during the rehab process, eventually undergoing Tommy John ligament replacement surgery.

Yet amongst the far too many months lost to injury, Carpenter has also displayed greatness on the mound. He was 15-5 before the late injury in 2004, and followed that with a brilliant 2005 campaign. His 21-5 record and 7 complete games were enough to win the NL Cy Young Award. His winning percentage in 2009 was even better, as he went 17-4 with a 2.24 ERA after the two lost seasons of ’07 and ’08. In the last two years he’s become the Cardinals’ workhorse, starting the most games in the league in both 2010 and 2011, and throwing the most innings this year.

This year, in a reflection of his career, Carpenter was at times indifferent and at times brilliant. He was just 8-9 through the end of August. But when St. Louis needed him most, he answered the call. Carpenter was a perfect 3-0 in September, with an ERA of just 2.15 in six starts. More than half of the eleven earned runs he surrendered in the final month came in a single no decision against Cincinnati on September 2nd. In his final five regular season starts Carpenter’s ERA was 1.13.

He started Game Two of the NLDS against the Phillies on short rest, and gave up four runs on five hits and three walks in just three innings. But the Cardinals rallied to win that game, and five days later, working on regular rest, Carpenter was brilliant with the season on the line. He outpitched Roy Halladay in the decisive Game Five, throwing a complete game three hit shutout to send his team into the NLCS.

This Wednesday, twelve days after that performance, he scattered five hits over six innings while making but a single bad pitch. In the 5th inning a fastball to Texas catcher Mike Napoli caught too much of the plate, and Napoli parked it in the right field seats for a tieing homer. But Carpenter came right back to retire five of the next six batters. He also made a brilliant if heart-stopping defensive play in the first inning. Covering first on a grounder that pulled Pujols off the bag, he dove for a low toss from the first baseman, caught the ball and slid headfirst into the base. For a moment Carpenter’s valuable right hand was splayed out on top of the base even as the batter’s cleats approached.

With his pitch count at just 87 through six innings, the right-hander still had gas in the tank. But his spot in the batting order came up in the bottom of the 6th with runners on the corners and two out. LaRussa had no choice but to pinch hit for his starter. When the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz couldn’t corral Allen Craig’s line drive down the right field line, David Freese trotted home from third and Chris Carpenter was on his way to his 8th career post-season victory.

This Series has a long way to go, and St. Louis fans shouldn’t start planning the victory parade just yet. Still, the Game One winner has won seven of the last eight Fall Classics. Carpenter had a lot to do with the fact that the Cardinals won this year’s opening contest, and everything to do with the fact that they didn’t go home at the end of round one of the playoffs. He may be in the 8th inning of a “what if?” career, but when it counts most, Chris Carpenter is still coming up big.

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