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PHILADELPHIA – The National League Division Series had been decided, the mighty Philadelphia Phillies dispatched like a playoff pretender, and the St. Louis Cardinals raced into their clubhouse and tore into the three giant blue tubs of Champagne. Then they stood in a half circle near the door to the tiny room, late Friday night, shook the bottles, held the corks and …
And waited some more.
Five minutes passed, then seven, eight, then 10 and still they would not celebrate. Here was a baseball team, just after the most improbable of playoff victories, and its players were standing awkwardly as if this was a junior high mixer at the VFW Hall. But the national television people had grabbed their pitcher, Chris Carpenter, the one who stifled the Phillies on three hits in nine innings, the one who sent them to the Milwaukee Brewers with a 1-0 victory, and that meant he wasn't in the room with them.
Carpenter was still on the field doing interviews. Given the way he pulled them through this night, making the postseason last another week longer, they couldn't pop the cork on anything until he arrived. So with no Carpenter, there was no party. They would wait.
Finally someone spotted him. He was walking up the tunnel from the dugout. Someone waved to the others and they huddled in position near the clubhouse entrance. And as he turned the corner into the room they pounced. Bottles flashed. Liquid poured. And Chris Carpenter could do little else but hunch his shoulders as they doused him with Champagne, screaming for the joy of a playoff win they never could have imagined a month earlier.
Even if the Cardinals do nothing the rest of this October, the year will have been a miracle, for it took so much just to make it this far. In February they were dead, ruined by the news that one of their top two starting pitchers, Adam Wainwright(notes), was done for the season with an elbow injury. In April they looked wobbly with their star Albert Pujols(notes) struggling. In September they were buried, far behind the Brewers in their own division and even farther behind Atlanta for the wild card.
Yet they never broke. And after they traded for shortstop Rafael Furcal(notes) and still weren't playing well, a decision was made to make every game seem like the seventh game of the World Series. Later, after Carpenter had been attacked by his teammates and a Cardinals player had sneaked into manager Tony La Russa's office and dumped two cans of beer on his head, the manager was still smiling.
"Obviously, we couldn't play like (the seventh game) every night for six months," La Russa told Yahoo! Sports as he walked down a corridor beneath Citizens Bank Park. "But for those last few weeks we had to play with that urgency of trying to reach the finish line."
But it worked. And in the season's final days, despite the injuries and despite being drained from the wild-card run, the Cardinals clinched an improbable playoff spot on the last day. Then after a Game 1 beating in this series, they came back to win the last two to stun the team that was built specifically to make a World Series charge.
That was Carpenter. He had not been the dominant pitcher of previous years. He won only 11 games and gave up more hits than innings pitched. He was still effective as his 3.22 ERA demonstrated, but was not dominant. And like the team that labored through the season until the end, he pitched his best in September, helping to get the Cardinals to the postseason.
Then, in his first start of the playoffs, in Game 2 of this series, he was not very good, giving up four runs in three innings. His pitching coach, Dave Duncan, said Carpenter was bothered by that game, feeling he had lost focus. In the days followed, Carpenter concentrated on throwing strikes with his first pitch and not letting his pitches get too flat.
"You know mentally he's going to be there," Duncan said.
On Friday he was. He got strikes with those first pitches, then taunted the Phillies with slow curves and sliders. And aside from a long fly by Raul Ibanez(notes) that went to the right-field wall and another from Chase Utley(notes) that came so close to going out in center field, there was little he did wrong. The Phillies, the mighty Phillies, winners of 102 regular-season games, a franchise record, hit meek little ground ball after ground ball and tiptoed into Autumn.
"I knew what I had to do differently," Carpenter said almost with detachment as he walked down a stadium corridor late in the evening. His teammates had nearly ripped his jersey off on the field. His gray undershirt with red sleeves was soaked from the Champagne. He looked tired but happy. He smiled as his teammates sprayed Champagne in the clubhouse. But rather than join them, he turned toward the showers. He had been good, yes, but the Cardinals are going to need him more than ever against Milwaukee.
They need his resilience. They need him to be like he was Friday. They need Tony La Russa to say as he did late Friday: "I think you can be rest assured we'll try to get Chris Carpenter as often as we can. So two days rest, four times."
He was joking.
If only the men in his clubhouse were laughing.
The party has only just started. The Brewers await. And the Cardinals are going to need him more than ever.
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