Chris Carpenter has proven himself as one of baseball's best big-game pitchers in recent years. (AP)
"Four on my elbow, two on my shoulder," he said. "And it's still working. Fortunately. Barely."
It was late May when Carpenter spoke those words. Shoulder weakness had shelved him for the season's first two months, and a month later he would undergo what was supposed to be season-ending surgery on a troublesome bundle of nerves. Only Carpenter's arm, alternately bionic and broken, started feeling good. And in one of the season's most surprising comebacks, he made three starts in September, setting him up for what's to come Sunday night: yet another monumental game for the St. Louis Cardinals. Carpenter is one of his generation's great postseason pitchers, and at AT&T Park he'll try to bolster his trophy case with another big-game poach: a victory in Game 6 of the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants that would send the Cardinals to their second consecutive World Series.
Carpenter's career is a mess of success interrupted only by his arm's inability to cooperate. This most recent was a doozy even by the standards of someone with labrum and Tommy John surgeries on his résumé. For years, Carpenter's hand had grown numb and his arm had tingled, a nerve impingement causing discomfort to which he grew accustomed. Then his arm started feeling like it was asleep all the time. The numbness shot into his face. The potential permanence of nerve damage spooked him enough to go under the knife yet again.
Doctors proposed what they hoped would be the most fortuitous rib removal since Adam. It made Carpenter nervous. His arm had survived enough trauma for multiple careers. Now, at 37, risky surgery beckoned. A person can live with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Neurological problems last a lifetime.
Dr. Gregory Pearl cut above Carpenter's collarbone, took out his top rib – now in a jar, at his 7-year-old daughter's request – and excised two muscles overrun by scar tissue and pinching the nerve. There was immediate relief. Carpenter would return. The only question was when.
"If I didn't have this surgery," Carpenter said, "I wasn't going to be able to do it. Not saying that if I had the surgery it was going to allow me to pitch again anyways, but I was going to give it one last shot. I didn't want to stop playing."
His arm had stolen enough time from him. Carpenter's sense of responsibility to the Cardinals is admirable. In December 2006, they signed him to a five-year, $63.5 million deal, only to see him miss almost all of the first two seasons with arm troubles. His next three seasons made up for lost time, and Carpenter's three-hit shutout on short rest against his good friend Roy Halladay last season that vanquished 102-win Philadelphia and pushed the Cardinals to the NLCS joined Bob Gibson's 17-strikeout World Series game among the franchise's historic performances. Still, Carpenter said, he feels a duty to "invest my body back in them."
So as soon as he could, he went to work. Carpenter is fanatical about his preparation and routine, two things after which other Cardinals pitchers say they pattern themselves. With doctors telling him to rest and relax from strenuous workouts, Carpenter did his best to cheat without breaking their edicts. He noticed holding his phone made his arm tired, so he tried to grasp it as long as he could. When Carpenter reached to grab his beer mug watching football on Sundays, he said, "I'd feel a little something and think, 'Oh, that was a good exercise.' And so I'd keep doing it."
A month after the surgery, Carpenter pestered his doctor to let him start running. While he focused on a return for the 2013 season, after which his contract expires, he figured there was no harm in aiming for the end of this season. His shoulder and elbow were cooperating, and by now nobody knew the rehabilitation process better than Carpenter.
"I could've easily given up multiple times," he said. "But I wanted to come back to pitch. And I've been lucky. My arm could've said no."
It didn't, though that's no testament to anything Carpenter has done. Just as he has been unlucky to suffer tears and pops and much of the nastiness an arm can present, he has been eminently lucky that the life on his pitches never disappeared. While he hasn't yet shown 2011 Carpenter stuff – his fastball is a mile per hour or two off, and the command of his breaking pitches remains shaky – Carpenter has saved some of his best performances for the postseason. His 2.94 ERA over 17 career playoff starts is more than three-quarters of a run better than his regular-season numbers, pitching around peripheral statistics that don't exactly match such success.
Whether it's charm or a postseason je ne sais quoi, Carpenter ranks among the top October pitchers of this era. He can change the modifier on era to "any" with another vintage effort in Game 6, another signature on a career winding toward its twilight.
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"Eventually it's going to come to an end," Carpenter said, a concession that is difficult to reconcile with the guy who still cares so much. Since coming to St. Louis in 2004 after the Toronto Blue Jays cut him because of the arm problems, Carpenter has evolved from a serious introvert to someone who channels his competitiveness in admirable fashion. On the Cardinals' bench, he is a prevalent voice – one loud enough sometimes that opponents tire of his chirping.
In spring training, Carpenter stood up in front of pitchers and catchers at the behest of new manager Mike Matheny, Carpenter's catcher with the Toronto Blue Jays more than a decade ago. The Cardinals had won a World Series last year with Carpenter pitching Game 7 and extending his arm, so beaten up already, to its limit. He was suffering now because of it, and yet he offered no excuses, no regrets. That's what they do in St. Louis: win championships, costs be damned.
His teammates sponged every word. Rare is the pitcher who commands such respect, such attention, though rare is one like Chris Carpenter. He wasn't supposed to be here, and he still was, and that said everything.
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