The Chris Carpenter news cycle has been quite a depressing one all season long until a couple of weeks ago. First there was his setback in spring training, some sort of nerve-related issue that was said not to be all that big of a deal. Then Carpenter was pushed back for a little longer as the Cardinals busted out their patented “we won’t be giving you guys a timetable on this player’s return because we secretly know he’s out forever” press release. Then, after the season was well underway, we were subjected to out worst fears as Carp was said to be done for the entire season. Now it looks as if the meanest Cy Young award winner in decades is all set to yell and scream and pitch in a real live Major League game in just three days. I’m not sure if I should be, but I’m pretty fired up about it.
It’s pretty difficult to know what we’ll be getting when we get Carpenter back in post-injury form. Carpenter has returned successfully from countless injuries before, but it’s hard not to always wonder if this time is the time it’s all over. Under contract for eight figures in 2013 and 37 years old, I’m at least optimistic that John Mozeliak and the rest of the front office wouldn’t allow Carpenter to trot out there for a couple of late seasons starts (and ideally a playoff run) if they thought there was a high probability that he was returning too soon. To run a raw Carpenter out there for so few innings would be an incredibly risky move since the team is going to need him next season, and I have a tendency to believe the pitcher when he says he’s ready and suspected he’d find his way back in 2012. Then again I sort of have to believe him unless I want to get screamed at and possibly beaten.
This is going to sound cheesy and perhaps ignorant, but aside from the chance of getting another solid starter in the rotation I just feel better having Chris Carpenter in the fold as things go down to the wire. Time and time again he’s found a way to red-ass his way to victory and outperform reasonable expectations (game five of last year’s NLDS!) in an effort to lead his team to the promised land. Say what you want about the guy, but even Carpenter’s most fervent detractors can’t doubt the angry, boiling fire in his belly. Carpenter surely wants to compete more than anything, but I doubt his pride would force him on the mound so that he could imitate his better self. I have to believe he’s going to be ready to go if he’s willing to insert himself into a crowded and crucial NL wild card picture.
If there are a lot of reasons to be terrified as a Cardinal fan (there are: the offense hates to score now, everyone’s slumping at once, Mike Matheny has been watching too much bunt porn), there is one fairly nifty advantage we’re going to get to see them take advantage of down the stretch. While Jake Westbrook is injured and Jaime Garcia has struggled on the road and Lance Lynn is a huge question mark, the Cardinals have the pitching reinforcements other teams simply don’t. They’re getting back a starting pitcher who logged nearly 240 innings of 3.06 FIP ball a year ago in Carpenter, and they have a dynamic and mostly unseen commodity in the young Shelby Miller. A healthy and effective Carpenter could force Lynn or Joe Kelly (I’m assuming it’s Lynn despite his excellent effort against the Dodgers) back to bullpen duty, thus solidifying the rotation considerably. Miller’s excellent stuff and status as a true starter mean that he can come into games in which the nominal starter falters and give the Cardinals plenty of dominant innings out of the ‘pen. That’s pretty valuable in September and October when managers have to possess an extremely sharp hook to keep early deficits from getting out of hand.
For much of this season, the Cardinals have been able to summon weapons of varying effectiveness to bolster their lineup in times of crisis. Lance Berkman has been a non-factor and several other players have battled aches and pains, but Allen Craig has turned into a legitimate cleanup hitter (going to hug him), Matt Carpenter is a four corners guy with gap power and patience (might hug him as well), and Jon Jay has developed his game into that of a true leadoff hitter. This offensive versatility could have led to a much better record for the first several months of the season, but it didn’t. None of that can be helped now, but it’s time for the pitching reinforcements to hold up their end of the bargain. Carpenter’s coming back, Shelbuh has arrived, and Trevor Rosenthal frankly looks fantastic. The offense has been struggling fiercely, but a pitching staff now infused with new deadly arms could make all the difference.
On a related note, if Carpenter’s two regular season starts are of the “holy shit!” variety and the team does happen to make the one-game playoff, does he start in it if the schedule permit? It’s pretty difficult to argue against putting Adam Wainwright out there since he’s been one of the best pitchers in the league after a homer-laden first month, but Carpenter and his banners from years past also have their place in the discussion. I’d still stick with Wainwright in such a scenario, but it’s an interesting situation to think about. I feel very much like I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s watch a few wins first.