Beast. Tough. Driven. Leader. Psycho. Cardinal. Repeat.
While John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny broke the news Monday regarding Chris Carpenter, I kept vividly remembering his countless memorable games. What a ridiculous ride Cardinal fans across the country have endured since he arrived as a free agent prior to the 2003 season. Ironically, Carpenter was recovering from shoulder surgery.
Walt Jocketty, GM at the time, took a waiver. The risk was nothing compared to the reward. But before even throwing a pitch, Carpenter suffered a setback, and needed another season-ending shoulder surgery. His one-year deal included an option for 2004, and Jocketty wasted no time picking that up.
Sure enough, Carpenter battled back, delivering a 15-5 record in 28 starts leading the team to 105-wins. But in late September, Carp was shut down with a nerve problem in his right bicep. The Cardinals lost their ace for the playoff run, which ended with a loss to Boston in the 2004 World Series.
The fun was just starting.
The 2005 season rolled around, and Carpenter pitched lights out. He went 21-5 with an absurd 2.83 ERA. His 7 complete games, 4 shutouts, and 213 strikeouts contributed to his first CY Young Award. Though an NLCS loss to Houston concluded the season, Carpenter solidified himself as a top pitcher in the league.
Carpenter won 15-games in 2006, and for the first time threw back-to-back 200+ innings. He went 3-1 that postseason, including a spectacular 8-inning, three-hit shutout in Game 3 of the World Series against Detroit. Carpenter helped bring the Commissioner’s Trophy back to St. Louis for the first time since 1982.
Jocketty rewarded him with a new five-year contract.
Thing’s never changed with Carp. He was seemingly always one pitch away from another surgery. And that’s exactly what happened on Opening Day in 2007 against the Mets. Carp battled through six innings before exiting, and he left for good that season. His right elbow needed surgery to trim bone spurs, but words like impingement and pain kept resurfacing after the initial cleanup procedure.
So in 2009 the Cardinals rolled the dice again.
Striking gold, Carpenter pitched perhaps his best season yet, finishing 17-4 with a career low 2.24 ERA en route to his second Comeback Player of the Year award. Carp finished second to Tim Lincecum for the CY Young award, but probably had votes stolen by teammate Adam Wainwright, who finished third. The Dodgers knocked him around in Game 1 of the NLDS, and the frustrating series ended in a sweep for LA.
In 2010, Carpenter started 35-games (career high), but a lackluster bullpen paired with the inept Brendan Ryan and Colby Rasmus left the Redbirds out of Playoff contention. Of course, we all remember Carpenter’s role in the bench-clearing brawl with Cincinnati. Don’t open that Chris Carpenter door, oh my.
The 2011 season symbolized what Chris Carpenter meant to this organization. Success did not come easy. Carpenter had 12-quality starts result in a loss or no-decision. Though I typically put little merit into a quality start, 9 of those starts he gave up less than two runs and in only one of those did he pitch less than 7, 8, or 9 innings.
This entire article could be about his 2011 campaign.
On August 23rd, Carpenter threw eight innings against the Dodgers. Up 1-0, Carp beaned Juan Rivera to start the 9th inning. Tony La Russa pulled a visibly pissed off Chris Carpenter. Between Arthur Rhodes, Fernando Salas, and Jason Motte, the Cardinals lost that game 2-1.
On August 24th, the Dodgers completed a three game sweep at Busch Stadium. La Russa called it “as bad as it can get” and said the team was mentally “out of it”. They sat 10 games behind Milwaukee, and 10 ½ games behind Atlanta in the Wild Card “race”. Carpenter led a team-only meeting, berating his teammates for what he perceived as pathetic effort. He reminded them the legacy of which the Birds on the Bat bears, and challenged them to play harder. If they lost, so be it … but no game would finish like that Wednesday afternoon.
Carpenter finished 3-1 down the stretch, and in Game 162, facing a win or go home scenario, he threw a complete game shutout against Houston to clinch a Wild Card berth. They finished 23-10 after that afternoon loss to L.A. No-way became some-way, which ended in some-how.
Nothing seemed more impossible.
Every deflating, crippling loss wrote them off, and they came back stronger. The team took the persona of Carp, whose entire career fluctuated in those same mind-numbing peaks and valleys (injuries).
Carpenter finished 11-9 in 2011, but his best work came on the biggest stage. Game 5 of the NLDS might have been his best game ever. On the road at Philadelphia, Carpenter rebounded from a rough Game 2 with a complete-game shutout against his good buddy Roy Halladay.
You can’t make this stuff up, folks.
Carp won his only start against Milwaukee in the NLCS, a pivotal Game 3 in St. Louis.
The Cardinals reached their 3rd World Series with Chris Carpenter as their ace, and he made up for his absence in 2004 with three solid starts against Texas.
He set the tone in Game 1 with a win over the favored Rangers.
He battled through 7 innings in Game 5, allowing just two solo home runs before the bullpen blew it in the 8th inning.
And after the Cardinals’ magical Game 6 victory, Carpenter was pleading (not asked) to pitch Game 7 on three days rest.
Three arm surgeries? Don’t care. Risk a fourth? Ball, please.
After allowing two runs early, Carp settled down and threw six innings as the winning pitcher in Game 7, pandemonium in the most fitting way.
Carpenter has an unfathomable will to win that I’ve never witnessed on a mound. It’s obvious when he’s gutting it out, but not in the box score. La Russa once said a Carpenter at 70% is better than most at 120%.
In the day of Darren Dreifort, Mike Hampton, and Donovan Osborne … pitchers steal more money than Bernie Madoff. Carpenter could have, but wanted to pitch. So he did.
The mileage from 2011 was probably the final straw. Diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, Carpenter experienced odd nerve numbness down his right forearm and into his hand. Throwing would cause bruising and “zingers”.
Nonetheless, as a final inspiration for a team that came one win away from another World Series, Carpenter rebounded from a surgery most would retire from. Doctors performed a surgery, which included the removal of a rib on July 19th. On September 21st on a cold, wet day at Wrigley Field, Carpenter took the mound.
I worked that game and was shocked he pitched 6 innings considering the conditions, but in hindsight — nothing is shocking when it comes to what this guy can do.
Carpenter won his 10th postseason start in 2012.
Ultimately, he called Mozeliak on Friday and told him of the recurring nerve pain. Mozeliak said Carpenter struggled coping with the situation, and at one point felt he was “letting the organization down”.
No, Carp. This organization and its Nation of fans are forever indebted to you for what you brought every day. Carpenter’s work ethic is an inspiration, and his baseball talents are the face of the St. Louis Cardinals for my generation.
If this is indeed the end of the road, you sir, will find your name and number on the same wall with players like Smith, Schoendienst, Musial, Slaughter, Boyer, Dean, Brock, Herzog, Gibson, Sutter and La Russa.
Excuse me while I stand up and applaud.
Chris Carpenter. What a warrior.