Ace may not battle back this time

Off the field, Chris Carpenter was polite, soft-spoken, a friendly guy with a warm smile. On the field, he was fierce, vociferous, an intimidator who snarled and scowled.

It was as if Carpenter was a chippy hockey player on the mound — no surprise, considering that he was an All-State defenseman at Trinity (NH) High School. But that edge, you see, is what made him great.

On Tuesday, as the St. Louis Cardinals announced the likely end of Carpenter’s career, manager Mike Matheny called him a “throwback” and general manager John Mozeliak called him “probably one of the most competitive players I’ve ever been around.”

Carpenter, 37, fought back from shoulder surgery in 2002 and a torn labrum in ‘03 to win the National League Cy Young Award in ’05 and help the Cardinals win the World Series in ’06.

He then fought back from Tommy John surgery in ’07 to resume his role as the Cardinals’ workhorse, pitching a total of 273 1/3 innings in ‘11 and capping his postseason with perhaps his defining moment, a victory in Game 7 of the World Series.

Carp’s final injury — nerve irritation in his neck and right shoulder — kept him out nearly all of last season. And though he returned to make three regular-season starts and three more in the postseason, he experienced renewed discomfort when he ramped up his offseason throwing program.

He called Mozeliak on Friday to inform of his latest setback, and the GM announced Tuesday that it was “very unlikely” Carpenter would pitch for the Cardinals in 2013. Carp did not attend the news conference and he will not retire immediately, lest he forfeit his $12.5 million salary. Mozeliak said the veteran will simply be placed on the disabled list, and that is how his career likely will end.

Weep not for the Cardinals; they overcame a season-ending injury to right-hander Adam Wainwright to win the World Series in ’11, and they endured for most of ’12 without Carpenter. The difference, of course, is that they had right-hander Kyle Lohse in both of those seasons, and at least for now they do not.

Lohse, 34, remains a free agent, and Mozeliak did not rule out that the Cardinals would renew their efforts to re-sign him. Still, the Cardinals are deep in young starters, and they covet the high draft pick and corresponding slot money that they would receive if Lohse signed with another club.

As it stands, the Cardinals’ rotation will include righties Wainwright, Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn, along with lefty Jamie Garcia, who had shoulder trouble at the end of last season. Three other young righties — Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal — also will be candidates to start.

The Cardinals have insurance on Carpenter, and a portion of his 2013 salary will be covered, according to a major-league source. In addition to Lohse, lefty Joe Saunders remains a free agent. The Cardinals could sign him for fewer dollars than Lohse and without losing a draft pick.

Mozeliak, though, was reluctant to talk at length about the Cardinals’ plans to replace Carpenter. Tuesday was a day for the team to honor its fallen warrior, who was 144-94 with a 3.76 ERA lifetime in the regular season and 10-4 with a 3.00 ERA in the postseason.

“He truly willed himself to want to win,” Mozeliak said. “When you think about all of the injuries he went through over his career, he always found a way to get back on the field in a positive way. I’ll always admire that about him.”

Everyone will.