To fully appreciate how far pitcher Chris Carpenter had to come to develop into an ace and big-game stalwart, it’s helpful to go back to the beginning of his Cardinals career.
As Carpenter prepared for his first regular-season start with the Cardinals in 2004, there were genuine doubts about whether he could be an effective member of the rotation. Carpenter hadn’t pitched in a regular-season big-league game in 18 months and he had endured two shoulder surgeries since then.
Today, nerve problems in Carpenter’s neck and shoulder will prevent him from pitching in 2013 and likely will end his playing career. In 2004, Carpenter began to show he was recovered from his shoulder ailments when he started the Cardinals’ fifth game of the season, April 9, at Phoenix, against the Diamondbacks.
Carpenter had made his last previous regular-season start on Aug. 13, 2002, for the Blue Jays, against the Athletics. After signing with the Cardinals in December 2002, Carpenter didn’t pitch in the big leagues in 2003.
He got cuffed around in spring training games in 2004. Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote: Carpenter confronted bouts of doubt late in spring training. He experimented with pitching from the opposite corner of the rubber, began leaving pitches up and was hit hard in his final two Grapefruit League appearances. The almost-daily winter workouts with teammate Matt Morris couldn’t eliminate the apprehension of appearing in a (regular-season) game for the first time in nearly 20 months.
Carpenter arranged for his wife, children and in-laws to travel from New Hampshire to Arizona to witness his Cardinals’ regular-season debut, according to the Post-Dispatch.
It began ominously. When Steve Finley and Roberto Alomar each singled and Luis Gonzalez followed with a double, Carpenter had yielded a run before recording an out. Arizona scored three in the first.
Fortunately for Carpenter, Cardinals batters teed off against Diamondbacks starter Casey Daigle, making his major-league debut.
After the Cardinals built a 4-3 lead in the second, Carpenter, with Mike Matheny catching, retired 12 of the next 15 batters. Meanwhile, the Cardinals hit five home runs _ two by Reggie Sanders and one each by Albert Pujols, Ray Lankford and Scott Rolen _ in the first three innings against Daigle.
When Carpenter departed after six innings, the Cardinals led, 9-5. They went on to a 13-6 victory. Carpenter earned the win, his first since July 24, 2002, against the Orioles, and the first by a Cardinals starter in 2004. Boxscore
Carpenter’s fastball reached 92 mph, a sign his shoulder was solid. He credited team orthopedic surgeon Dr. George Paletta and his staff and trainers Barry Weinberg and Mark O’Neal for his recovery.
“Physically, I felt great,” Carpenter told the Post-Dispatch. “I knew my stuff was there. But I still had that load when you don’t do it that long. Now I can tell myself no matter how hard I throw, or what I did, if I make quality pitches I’ll get hitters out at this level.”
Said Morris: “I thought it was awesome. I’m sure he wasn’t happy with how the first inning went. But to come back, allow only three more (runs), it was just awesome. I was at the top step (of the dugout) every inning.”
Still, Carpenter had an inconsistent April. In his second start, an 11-1 Astros victory over the Cardinals, he gave up a three-run home run to Lance Berkman. After five starts, Carpenter was 2-1 with a 5.28 ERA.
Pitching coach Dave Duncan helped find a key to turning Carpenter into a consistent winner. Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch reported Duncan “has been working with Carpenter on getting on top in his delivery by shortening his stride and consequently keeping the ball down more.”
Carpenter finished the season 15-5 with a 3.46 ERA and helped the Cardinals win their first National League pennant in 17 years.
In nine seasons with St. Louis, Carpenter had a regular-season record of 95-44 and a postseason mark of 10-4, including 3-0 in World Series games.