The Unflappable Chris Carpenter

After a rough start to the season, an ace has re-emerged in the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation: Chris Carpenter.

Carp

Remember when we were all worried about Carpenter? He didn’t log his first victory until the sixth week of the season; his second, June 23. His ERA pushed toward five. His outings lasted under seven innings as much as they lasted over. Questions about Carpenter’s health and durability started popping up, though his desire and resolve should never be in doubt.

But as the summer weather heated up, so did Carp’s pitching. In June he went 2-2 with a 3.00 ERA. So far in July, he is 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA. His strikeouts are down a little—Carpenter only has 17 this month with likely one July start remaining, compared to 29 in June and 32 in May—but his durability is at its peak: he has thrown less than eight innings only three times over his nine starts since June 1. He has been the stopper the Cards need.

And Carpenter’s return to form could not have come at a better time. The Cardinals have seen Kyle Lohse, Kyle McClellan and Jake Westbrook all struggle off and on. Lohse and McClellan have both regressed since torrid starts. Westbrook, aside from a couple flashes of effectiveness, has yet to really get it going at all this season. And while Jaime Garcia absolutely dominates at Busch Stadium, he still struggles in road starts.

But Carpenter just chugs along, most recently at the expense of the NL Central. His three wins this month have come against the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates. After dropping two of three to the New York Mets this week, the Cardinals kicked off the important series against the—hard as it is to believe—first-place Bucs Friday night with a 6-4 win. Carpenter was not brilliant, but he toughed through the victory, giving up four earned runs on 10 hits through eight innings to pull the Cardinals even with the Pirates in the standings. Set the team up for their second win in a row? Check. Start off a series with the team immediately ahead of the Cards in the Central on the right foot? Check. Pitch deep into the game, preserving the bullpen? Check. Classic Carpenter.

Before this season started, speculation on Carp’s possible availability at the trade deadline—pending the Cardinals’ status in the standings by the end of July, of course—was not without merit. His option for 2011 is an expensive one. He turned 36 years old in April. And the Cards had a lot of early questions with Albert Pujols not signing, Adam Wainwright being lost for the season, and Lance Berkman being an unknown commodity starting in a position he had not played in years. But neither the team nor Pujols seem deterred by his walk year, the Cards are playing well in spite of Wainwright’s absence, and Berkman has been a revelation. Consequently, the Cardinals are again knocking on the door of first place in the division and it’s hard to imagine them being anything but buyers at the deadline. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine them continuing to be competitive without Carpenter taking the ball every five days.

His contract situation beyond this year is still uncertain, but Carpenter is proving he still has a lot left. The risk of injury is always present. Age will eventually catch up to him. But Carpenter knows knows what he means to this team and will never give an inch as long as he’s physically able. Perhaps the Cards re-negotiate to keep him wearing the Birds on the Bat a little longer. Perhaps this is his final year with the Cardinals. Either way, Carpenter has again assumed the role of ace pitcher on a team that sorely needed one.

Chris Reed also writes for InsideSTL Mondays and Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter at @birdbrained.

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