St. Louis Cardinals

Something more than wins made Chris Carpenter a thrill to watch

The fiery Chris Carpenter was inducted into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame Saturday, along with Joe Torre, Terry Moore and Sam Breadon.
The fiery Chris Carpenter was inducted into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame Saturday, along with Joe Torre, Terry Moore and Sam Breadon. BND file

While baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred pushes the game toward ruin with pitch clocks, limited bullpen moves and wheelhouse strike zones, I’d like to take you back to an October 2011 evening in Philadephia’s Citizens Bank Park.

That was the night Chris Carpenter proved that a pitchers’ duel can produce all the excitement, tension and drama of a slugfest.

On Saturday, Carpenter was inducted along with Joe Torre, Terry Moore and Sam Breadon into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame. His 2005 Cy Young Award and franchise-best .683 winning percentage certainly had a hand in his selection.

But it’s his appeal as an attack-dog competitor that made him so compelling, especially during that 2011 postseason.

In the decisive fifth game of the National League Division Series, Carpenter had to go toe-to-toe with with hunting pal and Phillies’ ace Roy Halladay.

Halladay gave up a leadoff triple to Rafael Furcal and an RBI double to Skip Schumaker that put the Cardinals in the lead 1-0. Then the 19-game winner and reigning Cy Young awardee settled into eight shutout innings, allowing just four more hits while striking out seven Cardinals.

But that one, first-inning run was all the lead Carpenter needed.

The Phillies went down in order in five innings that day. They sent four to the plate in the eighth inning, but only because of a dropped third strike that would have retired the side.

In the interim, Carpenter gave up just three hits to the Phillies and walked none, pumping his fists in competitive fury with each out along the way. And, remember, he was in Philadelphia, home to some of the most notoriously hostile fans in baseball.

Twelve days later, back home at Busch Stadium, Carpenter gutted out a 3-2 Game 1 win over the Texas Rangers in the World Series. He wasn’t as dominant — 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, second and the pitcher’s mound. Albert Pujols made a nice backhanded play, but gave Carpenter too much lead on an off-balanced throw to first base.

Carpenter dove for the ball and simultaneously slid head-first into the bag, which he tagged with his glove to get the forceout. His exposed pitching hand was nearly stomped under Andrus’ spikes.

The effort helped set the Cardinals’ tempo for the rest of the series.

We won’t remember these clutch performances like we will David Freese and Game 6, but they rank on the heroic scale with Jim Edmonds’ game-saving catch in the 2004 NLCS, Bob Gibson’s 17 World Series strikeouts and, yes, Ozzie Smith’s “Go Crazy” home run.

Carpenter has more wins than the great Dizzy Dean and the highest winning percentage all-time among Cardinals pitchers with 100 or more decisions. But the true greatness of this ballplayer is better illustrated by this fact: Carpenter is one of only two players to be named the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year twice.

He spent nine seasons in St. Louis, but lost the greater part of three of those with career-threatening injuries. In 2007 and 2008, Tommy John surgery and a labrum repair in his pitching shoulder held him to just 22 innings. But he was back in 2009 with a 17-4 record, the lowest ERA in the league, and a second-place finish in NL Cy Young voting.

Given back those four seasons he missed with injuries, who knows what his career line would have been? The averages say he could have won 224 games.

But this much we know for sure: No player who ever wore a Cardinals jersey competed any harder than Chris Carpenter.

That, in itself, made him a thrill to watch.

A word on Torre

A couple years back, a friend and I got into an argument about Joe Torre’s days as manager of the Cardinals. My friend concluded that Torre’s .498 winning percentage over six seasons proved his tenure in St. Louis was a flop.

I disagree.

Gussie Busch died in 1989 and the brewery went cheap on the ballclub as it prepared it for sale. Manager Whitey Herzog resigned in frustration and Torre was brought in to shepherd a cheaply assembled team into a new era.

Torre did an admirable job, considering the parts he had to work with.

In 1991, nobody had ever heard of Felix Jose, Ray Lankford, Tom Pagnozzi or Bernard Gilkey. Bryn Smith, a 35-year-old castoff from Montreal, was acquired to lead a staff that included Bob Tewksbury, Ken Hill and Omar Olivares.

But Torre led them to 84 wins and a second-place finish in the National League East.

That crew won 85 games in 1992 and, with the free-agent signing of Gregg Jeffries and Todd Zeile’s switch from catcher to third base, Torre’s Cardinals won 87 games in 1993. Those three seasons each produced more wins than the 2006 World Series champions.

Torre, of course, will be best remembered for his success as manager of the New York Yankee, and rightfully so. But I’m glad that the 12 seasons he spent in St. Louis, both as a player and a manager, are appreciated and have been appropriately recognized with his selection to the Cardinals’ red coat club.

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman

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