Monday, March 26, 2012

Carpenter's Injury May Be Blessing in Disguise

The much anticipated reunion of the Cardinals' top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers - Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright - will have to wait a while - maybe quite a while.  While Waino appears fully recovered from last year's Tommy John surgery, Carp is being shut down for an "indefinite" period of time, due to a pitching shoulder weakened by nerve inflammation in his neck.

Of course, this isn't good news for the Cardinals; especially if Carpenter's rehabilitation process takes longer than expected.  But, what can be "expected" from such a vague prognosis?  For Carpenter and the Cardinals, "indefinite" could well be "deja vu all over again".

This injury is nothing new; the same sort of problem ended Carp's season prematurely, in 2004; denying him the chance to pitch in the postseason for the first time in his career.  That may have been a blessing in disguise, however; even a healthy Carpenter could have done little to prevent that disastrous four game World Series sweep the Redbirds suffered at the hands of the Red Sox; Boston's first title since World War I.

The following season, the well-rested and healthy Cards ace came back strong, winning 21 games en route to his first NL Cy Young Award.  The big right-hander made the most of his first postseason experience, winning both of his starts; alas, the team came up short in the NLCS, losing to the Wild Card Astros in six games.  The 'stros celebrated their first trip to the World Series in franchise history by losing four straight to the Chicago White Sox; coincidentally, the South Side's first title since World War I, as well.

While the Cardinals stumbled through the 2006 season, somehow hanging on to win their third straight division title with just 83 wins, Carp bagged 16 of them; he then tacked on another three wins in the postseason, including one in the shocking five-game World Series annihilation of the Detroit Tigers.

However, victory came with a huge price.  Carpenter's 2007 season ended abruptly, sustaining an elbow injury during his six-inning Opening Night loss to the Mets.  The subsequent surgery and rehabilitation process cost Carp most of the 2008 season, as well.  Only able to make three starts that year, his 0-1 record matched 2007's disappointment.  Not surprisingly, the pitching-thin Cardinals failed to reach the postseason each year.

When Carpenter rebounded to a 17-4 record in 2009, it helped propel the Cardinals to another division title; however, a late season slump carried over into a brief postseason run; Carp lost his start against the Dodgers in the NLDS, and the momentum carried LA to a three game sweep.  Perhaps lost in the disappointing conclusion to the season was just how well Carp pitched until the end; his 2.24 ERA and 182 ERA+ led the National League, along with his .810 winning percentage, but it wasn't quite good enough to earn his second Cy Young Award; San Francisco's Tim Lincecum bagged his second in a row, instead.

Carpenter pitched well in 2010 (16-9), with a NL leading 35 games started; and his buddy Adam Wainwright pitched extremely well (20-11), while starting 33 games of his own that season; however, the Cardinals failed to win the division title for the first time when having a healthy and effective Carp in the rotation, from start to finish.  The team seemed to be torn with dissension; featuring a well-publicized riff between Cards skipper Tony LaRussa and center fielder, Colby Rasmus.

The 2011 season would end in great triumph for Carpenter and the Cardinals, but it began with the ominous news that Wainwright and his 20 wins would be lost for the season, undergoing Tommy John surgery.  When free agent-to-be Albert Pujols got off to an uncharacteristically slow start, the team seemed destined for another disappointing campaign.  Carpenter himself pitched poorly during the first half of the season, compiling just a 4-7 record in 19 starts, with a fairly high 3.85 ERA.

When the front office dealt the sullen Rasmus off to Toronto shortly before the trade deadline, for some much-needed pitching help, the roster had begun to gel.  The rest is history; as Pujols, Berkman and an emerging David Freese led the offensive charge down the stretch, while an inspired Carpenter reasserted his dominance on the mound, going 7-2 over his final 15 starts, posting an ERA under 3.  By season's end, Carpenter had pitched a NL leading 237.1 innings, although notching a rather modest total of 11 wins; but the best was yet to come in an improbable  postseason filled with historic magic.

Carp's fourth, and final postseason win of '11 came in Game Seven of the World Series.  By that time, the durable hurler had tacked on an additional 36 innings of work to his log, bringing the grand total for the year to 273.1.  Perhaps Carpenter is once again paying the price for another championship.  Five years ago, the price was quite steep; two lost seasons.

This time around, the Cardinals are hoping for a more favorable outcome.  If it means just a couple of months on the shelf for the big right-handed ace to fully recover; that would be a bargain.  Having a well-rested and healthy Carpenter back in time for this season's stretch run could be just what the doctor ordered.

That's why Carp's latest injury may, in fact, be a blessing in disguise.  Only time will tell.

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