The only question is for how long…but it legitimately may be forever.
On Tuesday, the St. Louis Cardinals called a press conference to announce co-ace of the rotation Chris Carpenter will likely miss the 2013 season after a return of the shoulder and neck symptoms that kept him out of the vast majority of the 2012 season. With Carp due to be a free agent this fall and seriously questioning his ability to ever throw a ball again, the hurler maybe calling it a career once the Cards’ season is over.
Carpenter’s entire career was marred by injuries, but the years he spent with the Toronto Blue Jays were also markedly mediocre. The Cardinals took a chance on him while he was injured, signing him in 2002—but he would not pitch for the Redbirds until 2004. Then, under Dave Duncan, he flourished. Carp became the leader of the rotation, both in statistics and competitive fire. The playoff run in 2004 came to an abrupt halt partly because Carpenter got injured and didn’t throw a pitch in the postseason that year. In 2005 he rebounded to a 21-5 record with seven complete games (four of them shutouts), 241 innings pitched over 33 starts, 213 strikeouts, and a Cy Young award. In 2006 he again topped 200 innings, led the league with three shutouts, and propelled the Cardinals to their first World Series Championship since 1982. The injury bug bit Carpenter again in 2007-2008 when he only pitched in five games—combined. But his resilience would shine again for the next three years. In each season his strikeout totals increased, but so did his innings pitched. It all culminated with the 2011 championship run. For three of the four clinching games that year—Wild Card berth in Game 162, Division Series Game 5, World Series Game 7—Carpenter was the starting pitcher. And you’d better believe he was ready to go for Game 7 of the NLCS if it went that far. But the others were just works of art: a complete game shutout of the Houston Astros to put the Cards into the postseason; a 1-0 masterpiece in Game 5 of the NLDS to knock out Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies; and starting Game 7 of the World Series on short rest, keeping his team grounded after the heroics of the previous night, and pitching six solid innings to give the Cardinals the chance to win their 11th World Championship. David Freese may have been the MVP of the NLCS and World Series, but if they gave that award for the best overall postseason performance Carpenter would have a serious claim to the trophy.
That October 2011 performance could more or less prove to be his swan song. Carpenter did pitch at the end of last year and helped the Cardinals get within a victory of a return trip to the World Series. But now he faces uncertainty like never before, and so does the team.
Carp is a leader like no other on the St. Louis Cardinals. His numbers speak volumes, and may be replaceable. His presence, however, is not. And it’s another key loss from the so-called “old guard” of the Tony La Russa era in St. Louis. In less than 18 months, the Cardinals have said goodbye to Duncan, La Russa, Albert Pujols, and now Carpenter. Certainly nothing lasts forever, especially in professional sports. But that’s quite a hit in a short span of time.
There’s always the glimmer of hope that Carpenter can make it back and take the mound once again for the Cardinals. After all, it’s not like it would be the first time. But for some reason, this time it feels different…more final…more finished. Maybe it’s a combination of his contract situation and age. Maybe it’s that I was always afraid this would be the way he finally hung it up—leaving the game because his body forced him to, not because he wanted to. Hopefully Carpenter remains that invaluable presence in the clubhouse, in the dugout, and around practice. We’ll always wonder what might have been if he’d pitched in the 2004 World Series, or if the Cardinals had him in ‘07 and ‘08, or if he had been healthy all last year. But even if he has in fact thrown his final pitch as a Cardinal, Chris Carpenter can close the book knowing he was one of the best starting pitchers the franchise ever had.