SAN DIEGO — A 70-pitch simulated game was a step in the right direction but not enough to convince the Cardinals that ace Chris Carpenter is ready to pitch in a big league game just yet.
Carpenter, 37, has yet to pitch this season while dealing with a nerve issue in his neck and right shoulder. But he threw his third simulated game Monday afternoon at Petco Park and continues to make rapid progress toward a return to the mound.
And it appears Carpenter will pitch for the Cardinals in the near future — it just won’t be this weekend as some had speculated. The right-hander will instead throw another simulated game Saturday in Los Angeles before likely making his season debut sometime next week.
“It was a very good outing today,” manager Mike Matheny said. “He had more life on the ball, it was crisp movement and he held it all the way through until his last pitch with the same stuff. That was all very encouraging to see.
“Another step in the right direction. Right now we’ll just keep taking what we get and keep moving forward. … He’s going to throw another one and we’ll see how it looks after that.”
Carpenter had what was thought to be season-ending neurogenic thoracic outlet surgery on July 19 to eliminate a nerve issue that he’s pitched with since 2008. The rare surgery involves removing his top rib and two of the neck muscles that connect to it to allow the nerves to freely travel through the neck and shoulder area and not get pinched.
The former Cy Young Award winner dealt with numbness and tingling sensations in his arm and fingers at different points the past four seasons but was able to manage the pain and pitch through it. The issue became unavoidable this spring.
The right-hander attempted a brief comeback in June but was shut down and elected for surgery after the numbness and tingling sensations never went away.
Carpenter had hoped to progress enough this fall to show the Cardinals that they could count on him for next season, but after noticing a significant change when he began to throw, the goals and timetable were adjusted.
“My goal the whole time was to be prepared to let these guys know how I felt by the end of the season so we could go into the offseason knowing what kind of moves or what they can count on me for next season,” Carpenter said. “Fortunately I came out strong and it’s progressed. We sat around thinking, why just throw bullpens, let’s push it a little bit and see if we can get back out there.
“We have to be smart because we’re not going to run me out there if I’m not ready to do it and the next thing you know, I’m not only down for the rest of this year but if something happens and I’m down for next year. We want to make sure I’m strong enough, make sure my body is ready to go and not put me in any vulnerable situation that could ruin the ultimate goal and that is to make sure I’m ready for next year.”
Carpenter threw about 35 pitches during a two-inning simulated game in Washington on the Cardinals’ last road trip before throwing 50 pitches in a three-inning simulation last week. The Cardinals are in a bit of a bind because the minor league seasons have ended and Carpenter can’t make any rehab starts before rejoining the rotation.
And with the regular season dwindling and a potential playoff appearance approaching, the Cardinals are running out of time to get Carpenter enough action to where they’d feel comfortable starting him in the postseason.
“For us to get him moving and active on the major league roster, we just have to be convinced that he can contribute at 100 percent,” said general manager John Mozeliak. “From a medical standpoint we’re still trying to get him strong enough to do that. Certainly today was a big hurdle to get over and that was encouraging and there will likely be one more before he’s cleared.”
Said Carpenter of Monday’s throw, “It was good, no question about it. Everything felt good. I stayed strong the whole time so that’s a good thing.
“I feel like my stuff is getting better, getting sharper, which is what you hope for each time out, but you also hope that as you continue to stretch it out, you don’t fatigue and all that stuff. Everything was good.”
The veteran threw more than 270 innings in the 2011 regular season and playoffs, the most of any pitcher in baseball. He threw 36 grueling innings in the postseason, including two starts with just three days of rest and three World Series starts.
Carpenter surpassed the 4,000-pitch mark for the first time in his career, finishing with 4,155. He signed a two-year, $21 million extension with the Cardinals in September.
He went 11-9 with a 3.45 ERA in 34 starts last season. He’s 144-92 in 14 big league seasons with a 3.76 ERA. He won the 2005 Cy Young Award and has won at least 10 games in nine different seasons.
A potential return to a rotation that already includes Adam Wainwright and Kyle Lohse would make the Cardinals serious contenders for a return trip to the World Series should they qualify for the playoffs. They entered Monday’s game against the Padres with a 1.5 game lead on the Dodgers for the second wild card spot in the National League.
Carpenter will aim for about 90 pitches during Saturday’s simulation at Dodger Stadium. If all goes well, he could make his season debut five or six days later. That plan would give him three starts before the regular season ends.