The last time Chris Carpenter appeared in a big league game, he was leading the Cardinals to a Game 7 victory in the World Series on just three days of rest.
His teammates can’t help but hope for a repeat performance next month.
The Cardinals will welcome their ace back to the mound for the first time in 2012 when he makes his season debut Friday against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. And they know doing so only increases their chances of repeating last year’s magical run.
“It’s going to be huge,” said starter Adam Wainwright. “If he’s as healthy as we think he is and he pitches as well as we think he’s going to, he’s a force to be reckoned with. He makes our team that much better. We’ve had one of the best rotations in the National League already and you add a guy like that, you make our team very dangerous.
“Last year one of the big reasons we won was because he was so incredible the second half of the season and the playoffs. Just getting him back is huge.”
Carpenter has yet to pitch this season while dealing with a nerve issue in his right shoulder that he’s pitched with since 2008. He was shut down during spring training and attempted to make a comeback in June before having what was thought to be season-ending thoracic outlet surgery on July 19.
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 and not get pinched.
Carpenter began throwing in the middle of August in hopes of showing the Cardinals he could be counted on for next season. But as he began to throw, he noticed the numbness and tingling sensations he had dealt with in his arm and fingers at times the past four seasons were gone. So he decided to push it.
The right-hander threw four simulated games, including a 95-pitch effort Saturday in Los Angeles, before deeming himself ready to return to game action. And with just 12 games remaining in the regular season, his teammates couldn’t be happier to have him.
“It’s going to be big to get him back out there,” said closer Jason Motte. “What he was able to do last year, if it wasn’t for him, we don’t do what we did.
“He pitched in a ton of big games down the stretch last year, the last game of the season, the game in Philly against (Roy) Halladay, Game 7 of the World Series, without him we don’t do what we did last year. To get a guy like that back is big.”
Said left-hander Jaime Garcia, “Everybody is really excited just to have his presence back with the team. He says he feels really good so we’ll see. I’m really anxious and excited to see him out there on the mound.
“Everybody in the rotation has done an unbelievable job but having him back, just his presence and everything he brings, not just pitching, the experience, it’s just huge for this team. I think he’s going to help us a lot.”
Carpenter 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 a dramatic 1-0 victory over Roy Halladay and the Phillies in the deciding Game 5 of the Division Series in Philadelphia.
The right-hander 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.
Carpenter 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.
Safe to say his return comes at the perfect time for the Cardinals, who completed a sweep of the Houston Astros Thursday to go 2.5 games up on the second wild card spot in the National League.
“I’m excited to watch him pitch,” said manager Mike Matheny. “My expectations are he goes out and does what Chris Carpenter does. I’m not expecting to have the Chris Carpenter of any specific year except right now and go out and compete. We’ll see what it looks like once he gets out there but right now we’re excited to have him on the mound.
“He brings a higher level of expectation to everybody around him.”
Matheny said the Cardinals would have liked for Carpenter’s first start to come in front of the home fans at Busch Stadium but the schedule just didn’t allow for it to happen. The right-hander has three scheduled starts before the regular season ends and could again have a big role in the playoffs.