The Atlanta Braves appeared to concede the NL East race when they traded away a key player on Tuesday.
The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t going as quietly in the NL Central, especially not with the return of their ace on the horizon.
Two-time All-Star and 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter will make his first major-league start in nearly 16 months on Wednesday night when the Cardinals continue their four-game series against the rebuilding Braves at Turner Field.
Carpenter hasn’t pitched in the majors since opening day last season, when he gave up five runs in six innings of a loss to the New York Mets. The right-hander later complained of pain in his elbow and began a rehab process he hoped would get him back on the mound to help the Cardinals defend their 2006 World Series championship. The pain lingered, however, and Carpenter underwent elbow ligament replacement surgery last July.
His return is a blessing for the Cardinals (60-49), who are four games back in the NL Central. The two clubs ahead of St. Louis have bolstered their starting pitching with trades over the last several weeks—the Chicago Cubs got Rich Harden from Oakland, while Milwaukee landed CC Sabathia from Cleveland.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa hopes Carpenter, who went 21-5 with a 2.83 in his Cy Young season and won three postseason games in 2006, can give his club a similar boost.
“About the best news we’ve had,” said La Russa, who also has starters Mark Mulder, Adam Wainwright and Matt Clement on the disabled list. “I don’t know that you can give me something that comes close to it.”
La Russa said he has no expectations for Carpenter and won’t necessarily have him on a pitch count when he returns.
“What he needs to concentrate on is the day he pitches,” La Russa said. “We’re going to watch him. When he starts struggling we’ll get him out.”
Carpenter may have things a little easier against an Atlanta lineup that won’t feature Mark Teixeira. The Braves (49-57) traded the switch-hitting first baseman to the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday, less than one year after acquiring him from Texas at the 2007 trade deadline.
The move seems to indicate that the injury-plagued Braves are looking toward next season. In addition to losing Teixeira, Atlanta is also playing without Chipper Jones (hamstring) and starters John Smoltz (shoulder) and Tim Hudson (elbow).
“This is obviously not the way we wanted the season to end and go forward. We look at (the trade) as building for the future,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said.
Atlanta lost its first game without Teixeira on Tuesday night, when St. Louis rallied for six runs in the final two innings en route to an 8-3 victory. The Cardinals have won three of four after dropping their previous five.
“It’s a close race with a lot of games left,” said Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, who hit a game-tying home run and scored the go-ahead run Tuesday. “We struggled for the first six or seven games after the break, then we came back and picked it up again. I’m glad we’re playing better than we did last year.”
The Braves, losers of four straight, hope to bounce back with Jair Jurrjens (10-5, 3.02 ERA) on the mound. The right-hander held Philadelphia to three hits in eight scoreless innings of an 8-2 win on Friday to improve to 4-2 with a 1.84 ERA in his last seven starts. He has never faced St. Louis.
Carpenter, meanwhile, is 2-1 with a 5.96 ERA in five career starts against the Braves. He hasn’t faced them since July 19, 2006.