ST. LOUIS — It seemed like a long shot a month ago, but Chris Carpenter will be on the mound at 1:20 p.m. Friday when the St. Louis Cardinals open a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
"I'm looking forward to it, no question," Carpenter said. "It's been a lot of hard work and I'm fortunate to get back out there and compete. I worked my butt off to try to get back and it worked out."
Carpenter underwent thoracic compartment surgery July 19, losing a rib in his right side that was cutting off circulation to his arm.
Carpenter hasn't pitched since Game 7 of the World Series last October against Texas. The Cardinals aren't sure how long Carpenter can pitch, but they know he will compete at his usual high level.
"Our expectations are he goes out and does what Chris Carpenter does," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We'll see what it looks like once he gets out there, but right now, we're excited to have him on the mound."
Carpenter throws himself into the middle of the Cardinals' chase for the second wild-card spot in the National League. Carpenter hopes he can be a difference-maker.
"I've pitched in games that matter, so I'm going out there with the same focus, the same program," he said. "Hopefully, I can help give us maybe a little push and we can get on a little run."
Carlos Beltran could have started Thursday in the Cardinals' 5-4 win over Houston, but didn't as Matheny went with Matt Carpenter in right field.
Matheny said the Cardinals continually monitor the health of Beltran's battered knees, which flare from time to time, and his occasionally sore right hand.
"He's fine," Matheny said. "He was a little tight in his knee (Wednesday). I know he was ready to go again (Thursday) morning. But what we've done here recently is paid real close attention when those little things are bothering him and he can still play.
"We're trying to be smart about it. We pushed him and really had him grind for the bulk of this season, and it put him in a bad spot."
Beltran looked fine when he smacked a two-run double to left-center as a pinch-hitter in the sixth, putting the Cardinals ahead 5-3.
"That was a great at-bat," Matheny said of Beltran's double on a 1-1 pitch from Wesley Wright. "You can tell he's feeling better; he's obviously feeling better at the plate.
"He had a beautiful swing. I thought it was out of here. He just had too much topspin. He killed it."
Beltran, after a prolonged slump, has boosted his average back to .268 with 29 home runs and 89 RBIs.
"I feel good, man," said Beltran, who has nine hits in his last 19 at-bats. "It's hard for me to predict what's going to happen after today, but ... I feel good. I would love to be out there every day. Sometimes managers see us play and they can sense when you're tired.
"But as a player, I wouldn't ever go to the manager's office and ask for a day off. That's not who I am. I like to be out there. Sometimes when you don't feel good, those are days you might have a good day."
Matheny expects Beltran, who owns a six-game hitting streak, to start Friday against Cubs right-hander Chris Volstad (3-10).
Matheny also said Carpenter won't be left on the bench to idle.
"We also need to still find opportunities for a player like a Matt Carpenter to get in there," Matheny said. "We know he's been pretty valuable to us over the long haul."
Jaime Garcia (5-7) earned his first career victory in six decisions against the Astros, allowing three runs in six innings. Garcia walked two and struck out five.
Garcia walked in a run in the first and yielded run-scoring hits to Justin Maxwell and Brandon Laird in the third. Laird's slow grounder hit second base and rolled into short left-center.
"What I would say about this game ... is it wasn't my best game I've felt physically, but at the same time, you've got to keep battling," Garcia said. "You've got to find a way to get it done and give your team a chance to win. I'm glad I was able to do that."
10 straight for Yadi
Catcher Yadier Molina, another player the Cardinals try to handle with kid gloves, started his 10th consecutive game Thursday.
"He feels good," Matheny said. "He's ready to go. He knows we need him."
Matheny said Molina is dealing with a sore left thumb, the result of a season of misdirected foul tips into his glove.
"Once that ligament gets stretched out, it just becomes more susceptible," Matheny said. "Probably a surgery could fix it. It's bad, but it does go away, and you get back to doing what you do."
The Cardinals attracted 34,788 to the game Thursday, pushing them over the 3-million mark for the ninth consecutive season and for the 16th time in franchise history.
St. Louis has drawn 3,019,962 in 75 games, an average of 40,266.
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.