COMMENTARY | When the St. Louis Cardinals learned that ace starting pitcher Chris Carpenter's career is probably over, the team lost a lot more than a guy who likely would have won 15 or more games if he was healthy.
A year ago when Albert Pujols left the club to sign as a free agent with the Los Angeles Angels, sportscasters and sports radio hosts questioned players over and over about how the Redbirds would fare in 2012 without their leader. To a man, those players, including Lance Berkman and Skip Schumaker, firmly corrected their interviewers: Pujols was not the team's leader, they said. That job belonged to Carpenter.
When he was physically sound, Carpenter was one of a handful of Redbirds pitchers who could honestly be compared to Bob Gibson. He's got the 2005 National League Cy Young Award to prove it. Carpenter's performance in Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series, in which he shut out the Phillies on three hits to beat Roy Halladay 1-0, stands as the best display of pitching I have ever seen.
But I was also impressed last year when a diminished Carpenter willed his way to a win in the third game of the NLDS against Washington. He couldn't locate his pitches consistently and his fastball was sitting in the low- to mid-80s, but somehow Carpenter managed 5 2/3 innings of shutout baseball. He put the Cardinals in position to force a fateful fifth game in which they overcame a 6-0 deficit to make it to the National League Championship Series. Carpenter spurred on the Redbirds with his booming, gravelly voice, urging them not to quit as the team slowly gained momentum.
No one seemed to enjoy winning more than Carpenter. I don't think I ever saw a happier player than he was as he paused to wave at fans in my section of the left field bleachers while he took a victory lap around the warning track at Busch Stadium following Game 7 of the 2011 World Series. That made him easy to root for.
Cardinals fans always knew they were going to get 100 percent from the ace. Meanwhile, opponents always knew they were going to be in for a take-no-prisoners battle when the intimidating 6-foot-6 righty was on the mound. His competitiveness made him one of the pitchers National League Central rivals least wanted to face. He scrapped with Dusty Baker of the Cubs, Nyjer Morgan of the Brewers, and about half of the Reds during the infamous Brandon Philips brawl.
One of my favorite parts of going to see the Redbirds during spring training over the last decade has been watching Carpenter pitch in basically meaningless games. Even then he was all business. I've watched him deal strikeouts and ground balls to hitter after hitter while only using one or two pitches in his arsenal. Inevitably, he'd make a bad pitch here or there and, forgetting he was in a cozy park with only 6,000 people in it, he'd uncork a big-time bad word or two as he slapped his glove at the ball coming back from the catcher. He'd sheepishly cover the smile on his face as he was brought back to reality by the murmur of the giggling crowd that could hear everything he said in such an intimate setting. The audience might have been offended if Carpenter wasn't so genuine and honest in his effort.
I'm hoping for a miracle recovery that will somehow allow the Redbirds' ace to extend his career by a season or two. Sure, the Cardinals have several young power pitchers who are more than willing to step into the rotation and deal heat. But it's impossible to replace the experience and competitive spirit of one of the best players in franchise history.
And it would have been nice if Carpenter had a chance to mold prospects Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly like he helped turn Adam Wainwright into a star.
Scott Wuerz has been a reporter and columnist at the Belleville News-Democrat, located in suburban St. Louis, since 1998. During that time he has covered three St. Louis Cardinals World Series appearances, the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star game and Mark McGwire's chase to break Roger Maris' home run record. He has penned the View From the Cheap Seats Cardinals fan blog for the News-Democrat since 2007.