ST. LOUIS – Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter will throw a second simulated game to hitters Tuesday at Busch Stadium and signs are pointing towards a return to the rotation at some point before the season ends.
The former Cy Young Award winner has yet to pitch this season and had what was thought to be season-ending neurogenic thoracic outlet surgery on July 19. But he recently began throwing and things have progressed faster than anticipated.
“Everything looks like he’s on track to contribute so we’re hopeful that what happens,” general manager John Mozeliak said Monday. “Is it realistic? I think it is, but rather than get out in front of that, let’s just see how he does tomorrow and if he can get back this year, I think that’s going to be a great shot in the arm for the club.”
The procedure was done to eliminate a nerve issue that he’s pitched with in his right shoulder 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.
Carpenter 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 accelerated.
“If I’m feeling good and my strength is good, there’s no need to sit around and not try,” Carpenter said. “Might as well try, right? That’s what we’re doing. We’ll see what happens.
“We’ll go out tomorrow and see what happens. We’re still taking it one day at a time. I’ll go out tomorrow and throw and see what happens and if it feels good, we’ll go on to the next one and push it up but I’m not looking past tomorrow.”
Carpenter plans to throw three simulated innings Tuesday, an increase from the two-inning workout he did on Friday in Washington. The Cardinals have yet to formulate a plan for what would be next, but it appears building up his pitch count remains the main hurdle before he could return.
“I would say if we bring him back, it would likely be in the starting role,” Mozeliak said. “Given the guys we have now in our bullpen, you could see some sort of piggy back scenario if it worked out that way but ideally we want him to come back and be able to throw 90 pitches. We’re not going to bring him back until he can do that.”
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 quality for the playoffs. They entered Monday’s game against the Mets with a half-game lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second wild card spot in the National League.
“I could have easily called it a day when they said I was having surgery but I didn’t want to do that,” Carpenter said. “I wanted to see what I could do and see if I could get back.”
The Cardinals hope to get a positive answer in a few weeks.