CHICAGO — The end result was a disappointing and deflating 5-4 walk-off loss in 11 innings Friday to the Chicago Cubs. But what happened the first five innings might prove to be more important for the Cardinals down the stretch.
The defending World Series champions welcomed back ace Chris Carpenter, who made his first start of the 2012 season after dealing with a nerve issue in his right shoulder the first five months of the year.
Carpenter went five innings and allowed two runs on five hits, departing with the Cardinals leading 3-2. It wasn’t the dominant stuff we’ve seen so many times from the former Cy Young Award winner. But it was a step in the right direction.
“My stuff wasn’t as sharp as I’d like and it wasn’t as sharp as it’s been in those simulated games but I did the best I could to get as many outs as I could and give us a chance,” Carpenter said. “It was fun to get back out there but definitely something we need to build on and hopefully my stuff will get better and sharper as I get out there more often.”
Appearing for the first time since leading the Cardinals to a victory in Game 7 of the World Series 330 days ago, Carpenter needed 77 pitches to get through five innings. He had two scoreless innings to start his day before finding trouble in the third.
Carpenter threw just ten pitches in the third inning but allowed two runs. And five of the six balls put into play were hit hard. An RBI single from Darwin Barney and a double by Alfonso Soriano evened the score at 2.
The right-hander set down the side in order in the fourth inning and pitched around a two-out hit in the fifth, striking out Soriano looking to end the fifth inning on his final pitch of the day.
“I thought he was good,” said manager Mike Matheny. “It was good to have him back out there. Obviously he did exactly what we thought he would do, go out there and compete. He made some good pitches. He was looking better and just had a good rhythm, good timing. He gave us a chance to win.
“We always talk about when these guys get going early in the season, which it’s early in the season for him, getting the feel for his secondary pitches is tough and you could see he had a tough time getting the curve ball going which is a big pitch for him. He had to rely on location.”
Carpenter was shut down during spring training and attempted to make a comeback in June. He had 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.
The veteran 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.
Carpenter threw four simulated games, including a 95-pitch effort last week in Los Angeles, before deeming himself ready to return to game action. And with the minor league seasons open and no rehab stints available, he was thrown right into the fire for his first game action.
“It was exciting,” Carpenter said. “They announce your name at Wrigley Field and you get a huge roar from the crowd and then you go running out to the mound and you get another one. It’s pretty neat. Its’ something I’ll remember forever but again, your out there to do a job, you’re out there to pitch and give your team a chance to win.
“The more you get out there, the more comfortable you get, you get more in time, more in rhythm and your stuff gets better. I need to continue to work but that’s something to build off of, no question about it.”
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 a healthy Carpenter completely changes the Cardinals chances of not only reaching the playoffs but getting back to the World Series. The Cardinals entered Friday with a 2.5 game lead for the second wild card spot in the National League.
Carpenter has two more starts scheduled before the regular season ends. And he’s already looking forward to his next one. Asked if how he felt Saturday would be important, the big right-hander said he’s moved past that stage.
“No, I’m over that,” Carpenter said. “It’s been going on now for the last month or so, recovering and recovering well. If I go home concerning myself with the way I’m going to wake up and how I’m going to feel, it’s just a waste of energy. I felt good. I’m looking forward to waking up tomorrow, getting my work in and getting ready to pitch again in five days.”
And the Cardinals couldn’t be looking any more forward to it either.