There was a moment, albeit a fleeting one, when it looked like Chris Carpenter was on the way back to St. Louis.
Carpenter had just finished the first inning of his recent rehab start here at AutoZone Park. After giving up a leadoff single, Carpenter got two groundballs – one became a double play – and he was out of the inning. The big right-hander took a step toward the first-base dugout – the Cardinals’ dugout at Busch Stadium is on the first-base side – then caught himself and turned toward the Memphis Redbirds’ third-base dugout.
Unfortunately, that would be as close as Carpenter, 38, would get in his journey back to St. Louis. Attempting to rebound from a nerve issue that limited him to about 30 innings combined in the 2012 regular and post-seasons, Carp was knocked around in his July 20 rehab start for Memphis and, worse, felt tingling in his pitching hand and now is on what Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak recently told reporters in St. Louis is “a timeout. It could be an elongated timeout.”
The fans at AutoZone Park gave Carpenter a standing ovation when he left the game after three and one-third innings in which he allowed four earned runs on nine hits with two walks and two strikeouts on 74 pitches to the Oklahoma City Redhawks (not to be confused with the ’27 Yankees). Always the professional, Carpenter remained in the Redbirds’ dugout until the inning ended and then he headed for the clubhouse and to a meeting room to field questions.
Carpenter might have tried to spin the truth, but it just would have rolled up to reporters the way his curveball rolled up to Triple-A hitters. Though his fastball hit 93 on the gun several times and consistently topped 90, he accurately said, ““I didn’t have any life on my heater; my cutter wasn’t sharp.”
Time and again, the minor-league hitters spoiled pitches that, in an earlier time, would have been put-away pitches, strikeouts. Carpenter would get two strikes on a hitter only for him to foul off pitches and then hit a mistake hard somewhere. Leadoff man and left-handed hitter Robbie Grossman, who began the season as a starting outfielder with the Houston Astros, went 3-for-3 off Carpenter including a laser triple off the right-center field wall.
The cold truth: There were moments it was difficult to remember that Carpenter had won 21 games and the National League Cy Young Award with the Cardinals in 2005, gone 95-44 with a 3.07 ERA over his Cardinal career and 10-4 in 18 career postseason starts.
Carpenter has come back from injuries before, even won the NL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2009. But when I asked him if those past comebacks provided any emotional fuel for him now, he looked at me like I had lost my mind. It was a perfectly reasonable question – from a journalist’s perspective.
From the perspective of the ultimate competitor, from a guy who didn’t just want to sit home and collect his $10.5 million salary, it was a crazy question. Coming back then had nothing to do with coming back now.
“I didn’t even factor into that I came back from other injuries,” he said. “I factored in how I felt, the commitment I’ve made to this ballclub, the commitment I’ve made to myself. I still have one year on the contract. I never came into spring training thinking I wasn’t going to pitch. So when I was cleared to give it a go, I was going to give it a go. Now we’ll see what happens. If I’m good enough or sharp enough to make an impact on the ballclub up there, I will.”
Now, of course, even that aim is compromised. The latest physical setback has the Cardinals and Carpenter hitting the reset button yet again. At one point in his presser here, Carpenter said, “Just because of the name on my shirt and the things I’ve done in the past that doesn’t give me a free pass to go out there and take somebody’s job up there.”
But it does give him more time. He’s earned at least that much.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.