Carpenter proves to be the key for Cards

The last man to leave the victory stand was, quite appropriately, Adam Wainwright, whose damaged right elbow was supposed to have doomed the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals.

It has been eight months since the announcement that Wainwright, the staff’s titular ace, would undergo Tommy John surgery and be unavailable for the season. The news inspired widespread and perfectly reasonable prognostications that the Cardinals’ championship aspirations would have to wait until next year, and then, only if Albert Pujols re-signed with St. Louis. After all, in losing Wainwright, the Cardinals lost more than a No. 1 starter. They lost an ace, a perennial Cy Young candidate, a pitcher who could be relied on for as many as 20 wins and an ERA below 2.50. How were they ever going to make that up?

Curiously enough, though saddened by his own prospects, Wainwright remained optimistic about the team’s. Yes, they had lost an ace. Just the same, he understood that they still had another one.

“A true ace,” he said, just moments after lingering on the victory podium.

He was referring to Chris Carpenter, of course, who had just won Game 7 of the World Series, holding the formidable Texas Rangers to two runs on three days’ rest. It was a great World Series. And though the rhetoric it generated was dominated by a discussion of relief pitching, the difference came down to the starting staffs. By comparison, there was never any discussion of the Rangers starting C.J. Wilson, though his regular-season numbers were superior to those of Carpenter’s. That’s not to say Matt Harrison pitched badly for Texas on Friday night. But he’s not an ace. He’s not a guy you give the ball to for the seventh game of the World Series.

Again, for all the talk of relievers and matchups and bullpen strategy, the last possible night of the season vindicated conventional baseball wisdom. The Cardinals had an ace. The Rangers did not.

I asked Wainwright whether he had spoken to Carpenter before the game.

“Noooo,” he said, his eyes growing wide. “Never. Not before a start. Not unless he volunteers something.”

Obviously, Carpenter hadn’t been in a volunteering mood.

“True aces, like Carp, really don’t worry about who else is playing,” Wainwright said. “They put the most pressure on themselves, as much as anyone could ever put on us. Whether I was there or not, the situation was never really any different for Carp.”

I asked Wainwright what Carpenter had told him over the course of the season.

“Told me a million times, ‘I wish you could be pitching now,’ ” Wainwright said. “I wish I could be, too. But I had a lot of fun watching him do it.”

In retrospect, the biggest break Tony La Russa’s club could’ve gotten was Wednesday’s rainout, as it gave him the option of starting Carpenter on three days’ rest. I figured that was a no-brainer. It was Carpenter who clinched the wild card with a complete game win over the Astros on the last day of the regular season. It was Carpenter who outdueled his old friend, Roy Halladay, 1-0, with another complete game to clinch the Division Series against the Phillies. Surely, it would be Carpenter’s chance to clinch the World Series.

“That’s not the way we do it,” said La Russa, who discussed the situation with his longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan, after the epic game 6.

Only then, Friday morning, did he finally call Carpenter.

“Let’s lay out the options,” La Russa said.

“It’s Carp,” said Carp, hanging up the phone.

“So it’s Carp,” La Russa would explain.

As it happened, Carpenter gave up two runs on three hits in the first inning of the last game. He got through it, though. “Coming back out for the second, I didn’t know how long they were going to let me go,” he said. “So I was just trying to do everything I can to get one out at a time … and as the game went on, I felt stronger.”

Actually, he was stronger, his velocity increasing from the low 90s to the mid-90s. “My stuff got better, my command got better, and I was able to make some really good pitches when I had to,” he said.

Carpenter struck out Michael Young on a cutter to end the fifth and got Mike Napoli to fly out to end the sixth. He’d leave after giving up a double to begin the seventh. But that was more than enough.

“These guys never gave up,” Carpenter said. “Most amazing team I’ve ever been a part of.”

It’s worth mentioning that the pitcher himself had a good deal to do with setting an example for such resiliency. On Aug. 24, after getting swept by the Dodgers, St. Louis found itself 10 1/2 games back in the wild-card race. Carpenter, along with some of the other veterans, called a team meeting.

“We needed to start playing St. Louis Cardinal baseball,” he said. “ … It was about not embarrassing ourselves. It was about continuing to play hard, to give something to our fans, no matter if we won or we didn’t win. … I didn’t want to ruin the last month and a half.”

So they played hard and didn’t embarrass themselves and won a World Series along the way.

Carpenter had been around long enough to enjoy this one fully. He missed the 2003 season with a torn labrum. He missed the 2004 World Series with a nerve problem in his biceps. He missed almost all of 2007 and 2008. And yes, he came back from Tommy John surgery, which must be heartening to Wainwright.

As it ended, there was confetti and music and delighted children romping and roaming in the outfield. Finally, the ace came into the interview room, taking his place on the podium next to Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols.

Then his daughter, Ava Carpenter, grabbed the microphone. “I love my daddy,” she said.

“Me, too,” Pujols said. “I love your daddy, too.”