Throwback Thursday – Chris Carpenter: A Warrior’s Final Stand

Note: As I said last week, I’m not planning on writing much here anymore. But today I’m posting an article I wrote for the United Cardinal Bloggers 2013 season in review publication, which is still available for purchase. Like last week’s from the 2012 UCB publication, it’s also on Chris Carpenter. 

Chris Carpenter: A Warrior’s Final Stand

It can’t be how he expected his career to end.

The final pitch of Chris Carpenter’s career came on Oct. 4, 2013, fittingly on the Busch Stadium pitcher’s mound. Fall sunshine bathed the ballpark with a golden glow as more than 40,000 Cardinals fans stood and cheered.

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Photo: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Unfortunately, that final pitch was of no consequence. His last was a ceremonial one delivered just before Game Two of the National League Division Series between the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Touchingly, he was accompanied to the mound by his daughter, Ava, and tossed the baseball to his son, Sam, behind home plate.

Perhaps surprisingly, the emotion of the moment was visible on Carpenter’s face as he tipped his Cardinals cap to the crowd and, moments later, embraced his children as they all walked off the mound.

Then again, emotion from Chris Carpenter on a pitcher’s mound – though of a different sort – was never a surprise. It was expected. Emotion defined Chris Carpenter’s career nearly as much as his signature curveball.

And nearly as much as injuries.

Injury definitely defined the final two years of Carpenter’s career, 2012 and 2013. Yet it also defined how he became a Cardinal, when the Toronto Blue Jays – the team that chose him in the first round of the 1993 draft – removed him from their 40-man roster after the 2002 season ended, and after he’d had shoulder surgery. The Jays wanted him to sign a minor-league contract with incentives.

He instead chose to become a free agent, signing with St. Louis in December. He missed the entire 2003 season, finally making his Cardinals debut on April 9, 2004, at Arizona. His 2004 season was better than any he’d ever had as a Blue Jay, as he went 15-5 with a 3.46 ERA. But he didn’t pitch after Sept. 18, as a right biceps strain kept him from the mound. Tests later revealed a nerve irritation to his upper arm, a condition we would become all too familiar with in the future.

But all was well in 2005, which could be an understatement. On his way to winning the Cy Young Award, Carpenter pitched his way to a 21-5 record with seven complete games and four shutouts along with a 2.83 ERA and 213 strikeouts. One of those complete-game shutouts happened to be in Toronto, as he allowed only a sixth-inning double by Russ Adams while walking one and striking out 10. Carpenter also was an All-Star for the first time, as well as the National League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game. He made his postseason debut and won two games (with the Cards winning all three he started) with a 2.14 ERA.

2006WSOverall good health continued for Carpenter in 2006, which not surprisingly meant that success did too. He compiled his third straight 15-win season, as he was 15-8 in 32 starts with a 3.09 ERA even with a brief trip to the disabled list in late May/early June. In his second trip to the postseason, his October achievements continued to grow. Carpenter went 3-1 in five starts covering 32 1/3 innings with a 2.78 ERA. His finest performance was saved for last: in Game Three of the World Series at Busch Stadium where he shut out the Tigers, allowing only three hits over eight innings, with six strikeouts and no walks.

The run on good health came to an end on Opening Day 2007, April 1. The World Series champs faced the New York Mets – who they’d last matched up with in the dramatic Game Seven of the National League Championship Series – on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. It turned into an April Fool’s Day nightmare, with Carpenter allowing five earned runs on nine hits in six innings for what became his one and only start of the season. Elbow stiffness after the game ultimately led to May surgery for bone spurs and Tommy John surgery in July.

His next start wasn’t until July 30, 2008, and Carpenter only made three more after that before shoulder problems put him on the shelf once again. He pitched only more time in 2008, a one-inning relief appearance on Sept. 2, before the now-familiar nerve irritation cropped up once again and shut him down for the season.

As before, however, he bounced back very successfully and made 28 starts in 2009. He finished the year with an NL-best 2.24 ERA along with a 17-4 record and second-place finish in Cy Young voting (with Adam Wainwright and his 2.63 ERA and 19-8 record finishing third).

Good health continued in 2010, as he made a National League-leading 35 starts and pitched 235 innings on his way to his third All-Star Game appearance. Carpenter’s record was 16-9 with a 3.22 ERA.

Next was 2011, where he proved the adage “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” to be so very true. In 15 starts through mid-June, Carpenter had a 1-7 record and 4.47 ERA. He made 19 starts after that, going 10-2 with a 3.06 ERA. He also lead the the team both in word – as evidenced by his role in the team meeting in August that began the team’s turnaround from 10 1/2 games back in the wild card race – and action. Going into the final game of the regular season, the Cardinals were poised to at least secure a tie with the Atlanta Braves for the wild card and had Carpenter taking the mound – a move planned weeks earlier by Tony La Russa. On that very memorable night of baseball overall, Carpenter proved La Russa’s faith was justified, allowing only two singles as the Cardinals shut out the Astros 8-0. He even had an RBI-single just for fun. Carpenter finished the regular season 11-9 with a 3.45 ERA and league-leading 237 1/3 innings pitched.

And then came October.

We don’t necessarily remember now that Chris Carpenter made six starts that month. Three have faded from our memories completely: his terrible three innings on three days’ rest in Game Two of the NLDS against the Phillies, Game Three of the NLCS facing the Brewers (come to think of it, the NLCS as a whole has faded for our memories, hasn’t it?) and Game Five of the World Series. We do recall his start in Game One of the World Series, if only for his diving tag of first base as Elvis Andrus grounded out.

Which leaves the other two.

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One of the all-time favorite photos used on AMF — thank you, always, Nick Punto!

Carpenter’s career-defining performance was Oct. 7, 2011, the deciding Game Five of the NLDS. Facing his good friend and former teammate Roy Halladay for the first time, the game was tight and tense and tremendous. The sole run scored on two first inning hits: a lead-off Rafael Furcal triple followed by a Skip Schumaker double. Halladay allowed only four singles after that, plus one intentional walk, while striking out seven. Carpenter allowed just three hits, walked none, struck out three, ended the Phillies 102-win season on 110 pitches and unleashed a warrior’s primal scream following the final one. No doubt you can picture it in your mind right now.

Game Seven of the World Series was less precise for Carpenter, but the fact he was on the mound at all was thanks to Mother Nature’s gracious timing of rain in St. Louis that caused Game Six to be pushed back and, of course, David Freese and Lance Berkman’s heroics once the epic game was played. Carpenter was again pitching on three days’ rest, but no matter. This was it, Game Seven.

His first inning was rough, with a lead-off single, a walk and two doubles leading to two runs. Of course it was Freese who tied the game in the bottom of the first, driving in Albert Pujols and Berkman with a double, and Carpenter and the Cards settled in from there. He went six innings in the 6-2 Series-clinching win, finishing up his 2011 season with a grand total of 273 1/3 innings along with winning four of his six October starts, with no losses, and a 3.25 ERA.

In retrospect, he could have done what Tony La Russa did: retired then with a perfect storybook ending after such a stellar October and amazing Cardinals championship run. He didn’t, of course — that’s not what a warrior does.

But we know now how much those innings took a toll, even before we read from Bob Nightengale in a Sept. 26, 2013, article in USA Today that 2011 “might have cost Carpenter his career … His body never recovered. He has pitched 17 innings in two years since and likely will never pitch again.”

Those 17 innings, however – all coming in 2012 – were the performance of a true warrior once again, through and through.

“Thoracic outlet syndrome” and “rib-removal surgery” are six words to sum up Chris Carpenter’s six months between February and August 2012. We were told the surgery was season-ending, which made sense given a body part was removed. Yet he defied everything and returned on Sept. 21, starting on a rainy and cool day at Wrigley Field. That day, his two subsequent regular season and three postseason starts were not vintage Chris Carpenter — except in the very determination that resulted in him playing at all. His September and October 2012 record was 1-4, his ERA 3.27.

Going into 2013, Carpenter was hopeful at the Winter Warm-Up in January but just a week or so later, he began experiencing the unfortunately familiar discomfort and numbness in his right shoulder he had the year before. At a Feb. 5 news conference, John Mozeliak announced it was very unlikely Carpenter would pitch again, although the warrior himself said during his own news conference a week later there would always be hope.

Surprisingly, there was.

In early May he was feeling good and began a throwing program – all the result of playing catch in the backyard with his son Sam, who complained that Dad was throwing too hard. “I’m not trying to be a hero or do anything crazy. I just want to go out and see if I can pitch,” Carpenter said in an article by Jenifer Langosch.

It seemed like he could pitch again. The bullpen sessions at Busch Stadium led to a minor league rehab assignment, with Carpenter taking the mound first for the Springfield Cardinals and then the Memphis Redbirds in mid-July. Yet continued discomfort after the Memphis start was the end of the line.

Just one pitch remained for him while he was still officially an active player.

Appropriately, it was in October – the time when we know the warrior did his best work. In the end, he made 18 postseason starts and compiled a 10-4 record, 3.00 ERA, won two World Series rings and delivered a game for the ages in the 2011 NLDS.

He made that final pitch, his last moment on the mound sweet and sentimental, after fighting and battling and competing for so long.

Yet he went out a warrior. For a warrior gives everything he can, for as long as he can, until all that remains is the memory of his times of triumph.

Chris Carpenter’s retirement was officially announced on Nov. 20, 2013. He ended his career with a record of 144-94 record and 3.76 ERA, and 94-44 with a 3.07 ERA as a Cardinal.  

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