ST. LOUIS – The stare is a time-worn tradition of peeved pitchers. They break it out of their hip pocket for a manager with the temerity to yank them from a game. There are different levels of the stare, the ultimate causing the heart to pump blood at such an accelerated rate the jugular vein starts to pulse, like an internal time bomb.
When Tony La Russa approached Chris Carpenter(notes) in the dugout Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, he made sure to look at the right-hander's neck. La Russa was safe. No bulging vein. And still, the 6-foot-6 Carpenter cast a righteous glance at La Russa, and his eyes sizzled when St. Louis' manager told him that five scoreless innings was plenty for the evening. As much as the stare intimates the competitiveness La Russa values, it also … well, it kind of scares the crap out of him.
"Very intimidating," La Russa admitted.
Carpenter relented. He needn't push things, not now. He is 34, and if the last two years haven't taught him the meaning of patience and just how precious his health really is, nothing will.
And, yes, Carpenter is healthy, something to which the Chicago Cubs will attest after flailing at his offerings in a 2-1 St. Louis Cardinals victory that marked the return of Carpenter from the disabled list. This trip came after he tore an oblique muscle April 14 swinging a bat, the sort of cruel twist brought on by a wicked voodoo practitioner, because not even the god of injuries would wish more ill on Carpenter.
Over the last two seasons, he has thrown 21 1/3 innings, which works out to $296,875 an out. Carpenter underwent Tommy John surgery in 2007 to repair a torn ligament in his elbow, endured a triceps strain on the way back and dealt with a pair of nerve issues – one in his surgically repaired shoulder and another in the sliced-open elbow – this offseason. His arm is a testament to modern medicine and resilience and pigheadedness.
Scary part is, judging by velocity alone, it may be better than ever. Of Carpenter's 67 pitches – understand the stare now? – 37 were fastballs. They averaged 92.89 mph. In his three full seasons with the Cardinals, Carpenter's fastball never exceeded 91.4 mph.
The fastball wasn't even Carpenter's best pitch. He bored in cutters on left-handers and flung front-door curveballs at right-handers, the best a 75-mph bender that left Derrek Lee(notes) knock-kneed. Over Carpenter's five innings, he gave up three hits, walked two, struck out four and left one difficult-to-impress manager gushing.
"When a guy is great, don't ever be surprised," La Russa said. "Not surprising, just … amazingly impressive."
Carpenter declined to engage in such plaudits, volubility never his forte. He is unbroken in his boilerplate explanation of pitching success: enter with a good game plan and execute it. Sometimes the truth just isn't sexy.
Along with catcher Yadier Molina(notes) and pitching coach Dave Duncan, Carpenter creates an equilateral triangle of great minds. Carpenter is something of a pitching savant. In addition to the fastball, cutter and curveball, he throws a sinker, slider and occasional changeup. The first five pitches rate at least average, most of them above. Combined with Duncan's preparation and Molina's game-calling, a healthy Carpenter is almost unfair.
In the first at-bat against Lee, he threw all fastballs. The next at-bat, he started with two fastballs and finished with four breaking balls. The plan with Alfonso Soriano(notes) was simpler: down, down and down, none of the 13 pitches he saw above his kneecaps. The final at-bat was a clinic: cutter, cutter, cutter, curveball, all in nearly the same spot, at the ankles and on the outside corner. Soriano swung and missed at the final one.
"I know that if I'm healthy my ability has a chance to come out," Carpenter said. "Unfortunately, I haven't been healthy a whole lot, and that's what concerns me."
Remember, before the last two seasons, Carpenter was one of baseball's best pitchers. He won the National League Cy Young award in 2005 and a World Series in 2006. When the Cardinals signed him to a five-year, $63.5 million deal, it seemed something of a bargain, another case of St. Louis locking in a player long-term for a hometown discount.
The arm's fallibility taught otherwise. What pitchers do is taken for granted daily. They push muscles and ligaments and tendons and joints and hope none will fail, though it's generally more when than if. Carpenter's gave out more than most, only he continues to push them, well aware that another catastrophic breakdown may be his last, and content to do so anyway.
It's because of nights like Wednesday. The setting was perfect: 77 degrees with a calm breeze, the hated Cubs in town, a stadium teeming with excitement over one of its own returning. Carpenter has embraced St. Louis like few players do the cities displayed on their jerseys. He moved his family here permanently. Cardinals are already deities. Cardinals who are also St. Louisans are immortal.
Carpenter pitched like one, and his earned-run average remains zeroes in triplicate and his scoreless-innings streak this year stands at 15. Before the game, La Russa said he felt comfortable throwing Carpenter without a rehabilitation start and warned: "It may come quick."
Did it ever. The velocity and the dominance and even the stare, the one that La Russa hates. And loves, too.
- Tony La Russa