If you had been told back on opening day that Chris Carpenter would have three wins and an ERA over five at the half way point of the season, would you have thought it possible that the Cardinals would even be in contention? Chances are, probably not. I would have thrown in the towel on the 2011 campaign right then and there, but not only are the Cardinals in contention, they’re tied with the Brewers for the NL Central lead. Before I get too much into the resilience of this team (which has been remarkable), let’s get right to the Carpenter situation.
When Adam Wainwright went down in spring training (why does everything always come back to Waino!?), Chris Carpenter became the undisputed ace of the staff by default. It was clear that the entire team would need to collectively step up to fill the void, but if there was one guy who could directly make everyone forget about the loss of Wainwright as much as possible, it was Carpenter. I get the sense that many people were convinced up front that Carpenter would have his typical all-star caliber year and that Jaime Garcia would be the key guy instead, but as this season has shown, nothing in baseball is a guarantee.
After one of the worst stretches of his entire career to start the season, many questioned whether age was becoming a factor for the 36-year-old. After all, he can’t keep winning 15+ games per season forever, and when you’re dealing with a veteran who does have injury history, it’s inevitable that a decline in production will be noticeable at some point. If you throw the lack of run support into the mix (19th worst in NL), the concern among St. Louis fans was certainly warranted.
That was until Carpenter delivered a complete game, one-run, seven-hit, one-walk victory against the Baltimore Orioles last night. The Cards are searching for answers to several questions as they turn the page after losing 12 of 15 before coming to Baltimore, so Carpenter couldn’t have picked a better time to come through with a vintage performance. He seemed to be turning things around after his last few outings, so for me, last night is enough verification to say that Carp is officially back. Whether he’s here to stay remains to be seen, but he is back to 2009/2010 form right now.
Carpenter was sensational from start to finish Wednesday night, but he appeared to get better as the game went on. He maintained his velocity and control throughout, which is always crucial. Perhaps the most impressive statistic, Carp threw 132 pitches, which is the second highest total of his career and the highest total by a St. Louis pitcher in nearly six years. So much for age becoming a factor. He really had to battle down the stretch, but you just got the feeling that Duncan and La Russa weren’t about to stop him from finishing what he started, especially given the inconsistency of the bullpen this year. Chris was almost always ahead of the hitters, he scattered the hits that he did allow, and he gave up only one extra-base hit. Those factors, combined with an escape of a bases-loaded no-out situation, are a recipe for a complete game.
Carpenter’s 31st career complete game (second of 2011) places him in a tie with CC Sabathia for fifth most among active pitchers. It was his first complete game victory, however, since last September. He has now thrown 380 pitches over 24 innings in his last three appearances.
I have a feeling that this could turn out to be a game which the team looks back on as a turning point during the season. St. Louis needed its ace to pitch like an ace, and that’s exactly what happened. Given Carp’s intense competitiveness, I’m sure it was really frustrating for him to handle the fact that his struggles were significantly hurting the team. With that said, it’s that same fiery competitiveness that probably got him out of his funk. Carpenter is traditionally a better second-half pitcher, so this is more than likely a sign of good things to come. By the way, he could become a free-agent at the end of the season if the team decides not to pick up the $15 million option. Keep that in mind.