The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 41-50
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO 40: CHRIS CARPENTER
His 2005 Cy Young Award, 95 regular season wins and franchise-record 10 post season victories certainly had a hand in his selection. So, too, did the following career distinction: Carpenter is one of only two players to be named the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year twice.
The Cardinals signed him as a free agent from the Toronto Blue Jays in 2002 and retained him through his retirement at the end of the 2013 season. But Carpenter lost the greater part of four years in that stretch with career-threatening injuries that required three surgeries on his elbow, two on his shoulder and another on a torn oblique. Three times he rebounded with seasons better than the one prior to being injured.
After taking all of the 2003 season to recover from the repair of the glenoid labrum in the his throwing shoulder, Carpenter went 15-5 with a 3.46 ERA and led the Cardinals to the National League pennant. In 2007 and 2008, Tommy John surgery and more shoulder repairs restricted him to just 22 innings, but he returned in 2009 with a 17-4 record, an NL-best 2.24 ERA, and a second-place finish in NL Cy Young voting.
Given back this four lost seasons, who knows what his career line would have been? The averages suggest he could have won 224 games. Still, Carpenter amassed 95 wins as a Cardinal and his .683 winning percentage is the highest all-time among St. Louis pitchers with 100 or more decisions.
He mixed his signature cut fastball — which had an atypically sharp downward break — with a mid-90s four-seamer, sinker, changeup and 12-to-6 curveball. But Carpenter’s most effective weapon on the mound was an attack-dog mentality and singular focus that made him the most fierce competitor St. Louis had seen since Bob Gibson.
At no point in his career was that ferocity more apparent than during the Cardinals’ incredible late-season run toward their 11th World Series championship in 2011.
St. Louis trailed Atlanta by 10 ½ games for the National League Wild Card spot with little more than a month left in the season, but won 23 of its final 32 games to complete the greatest comeback in history. Carpenter went 3-0 during the September stretch drive, including his complete-game shutout of Houston on the regular season’s final day. He allowed the Astros just two hits while striking out 11 to clinch the Cardinals’ playoff spot.
Then, in the decisive fifth game of the National League Division Series, fate pitted Carpenter against an old hunting pal from his days in Toronto — Philadelphia’s 19-game winner, Roy Halladay.
Shortstop Rafael Furcal led off the game with a triple off Halladay and scored on a double to Skip Schumaker. Then the NL’s reigning Cy Young Award winner settled into eight shutout innings, allowing the Cardinals just four more hits while striking out seven.
But that one, first-inning run was all the lead Carpenter needed.
The Phillies went down in order in five innings and sent just four to the plate in the eighth because of a dropped third strike that otherwise would have retired the side. In the interim, Carpenter allowed just three hits without a walk — pumping his fists in competitive fury with each out along the way — to earn the 1-0 win in front of Philadelphia’s notoriously hostile fans.
Twelve days later, back home at Busch Stadium for Game 1 of the World Series, Carpenter gutted out a 3-2 Game 1 win over the Texas Rangers. He wasn’t as dominant as he was in the NLDS — he allowed two runs on five hits through six innings — but showed all the same grit.
In the first inning, Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus chopped a pitch into no-man’s land between first base, second base and the pitcher’s mound. Albert Pujols made the backhanded scoop, but gave Carpenter too much lead on an off-balanced throw to first. Carpenter dove for the ball and into a head-first at the bag, which he tagged with his glove. His bare pitching hand narrowly avoided being stomped beneath Andrus’ spikes. The effort set the Cardinals’ tempo for the rest of the series, including Carpenter’s championship-clinching Game 7 victory.
Unless it’s Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 or Bob Gibson’s 17 strikeouts in ‘68, great postseason pitching performances don’t tend to be remembered like walk-off home runs (see: Ozzie Smith, NLCS Game 5, 1985), costly misplays (Curt Flood, World Series Game 7, 1968) or blown calls (Don Denkinger, World Series Game 6, 1985). But Carpenter was often spectacular when the games mattered most. In 18 postseason starts, all of them with the Cardinals, Carpenter went 10-4 with a 3.00 earned-run average and in four World Series starts was 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA.
Elbow problems resurfaced to limit Carpenter to three starts in 2012 and force his retirement in 2013. Appropriately, his final win came in Game 3 of the 2012 Divisional Playoff Series against the Washington Nationals — a shutout.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 2002-2013
95-44 (.683), 3.07 ERA with Cardinals | 3x AS | Cy Young ‘05 | Cardinals HoF ‘16 | 27.7 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.38