Commentary

Never doubt Chris Carpenter

Cards ace back in the October spotlight after having 'season-ending surgery'

Updated: October 9, 2012, 8:55 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday afternoon in Nationals Park, a man will take the mound who has no business being there.

But Chris Carpenter's heart doesn't beat that way. His brain doesn't think that way. And his interpretation of the limits of medical science doesn't necessarily conform to, well, medical science itself.

When the St. Louis Cardinals hand him the ball to start Game 3 of their National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals, it will be a mere 82 days since Carpenter underwent a rare surgery that inspired the following headline in about a thousand newspapers across America:

CHRIS CARPENTER TO UNDERGO SEASON-ENDING SURGERY

OK, so maybe not. But who knew? At the time, it wasn't just our nation's ever-gullible media that thought he was having season-ending surgery. Everybody thought that -- except possibly Carpenter himself.

That's what his bosses thought. That's what his doctors thought. That's what his teammates thought.

So the fact that he's about to pitch this game, not even three months after surgery to address a nerve issue known as thoracic outlet syndrome, isn't just an upset. It's pretty close to a miracle -- except for one thing:

"I think if you knew Chris Carpenter," his close friend and teammate, Adam Wainwright, said Tuesday, "you wouldn't call it a miracle.

"He's been through so much," Wainwright went on. "He's been through I don't know how many surgeries. He's overcome so many obstacles already. So I wouldn't call it a miracle. I'd just call it a tribute to how hard he works."

He's come back, and it's unbelievable, even to us. Most people would go, 'Aw, I had my surgery. Now I'll just hang out, watch, do my rehab stuff and get ready for next year.' I think that's what a lot of guys would have done. But this guy, he's unbelievable.

-- Cards closer Jason Motte

Yes, but lots of people on this planet work hard. Only this man found a way to make it back to the mound months before a normal member of his species would have.

So when Wainwright was asked if, honestly, he really thought, on the day Carpenter had his surgery in late July, that he'd see The Ace pitch again this year, Adam Wainwright couldn't help but fess up.

"No," he said. "I didn't. Not even him. … When I hear a rib is being taken out of somebody's body, I think, 'That's a guy that's getting ready for next year.'"

And that was indeed the plan. It was everybody's plan. Carpenter had a rib removed to relieve pressure on the nerves around his throwing shoulder. Typically, it takes at least four weeks for the affected area to heal, followed by a rehab of three to six months, or even longer. And some pitchers who have this surgery -- Jeremy Bonderman and Noah Lowry come to mind -- are never the same again.

But only a few weeks after they wheeled him out of the operating room, Carpenter was already talking about building himself up to the point where he could throw a bullpen session before the end of the season. Nobody had a clue at the time, of course, that he was doing that to set the stage for a start in October. It was just so the Cardinals would have a gut feel, going into the offseason, on whether they could count on him at all.

Next thing they knew, though, he was feeling so good, he was pitching simulated games. Then he was making three starts in September. And now here he is, about to climb back into the October amphitheater for the first time since Game 7 of an unforgettable World Series. So Chris Carpenter will savor every second of a start that was supposed to be impossible -- for anyone but him.

"Well, obviously, everybody knows that it wasn't supposed to happen," the 37-year-old right-hander said Tuesday. "But I'm excited for it. Like I said all along, [I] put a lot of work into it. The medical staff put a lot of work into it. The trainers did a great job. And I put a lot of work into it to hopefully have this opportunity. I didn't know if I was going to have this opportunity or not, and fortunately, I do. I'm looking forward to it. If you're not excited about pitching in a game like this, there's no need to play this game."

Ah, but since he is pitching in a game like this, you should know he will be attempting to do something Wednesday that has never been done. Ever.

His team won zero games he started this season (going 0-3 in his three September starts). So if he starts and wins a postseason game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he would be the first pitcher in the history of baseball to do that following a season in which his team was winless when he pitched.

And he would join only Virgil Trucks -- who won a World Series game in 1945 after missing nearly the entire season because he was serving in the military -- as the only starting pitchers ever to win a postseason game after getting credit for no wins on their personal record that season.

[+] EnlargeChris Carpenter
David Banks/US PresswireThree starts, 17 innings. That was Chris Carpenter's regular season.

So what you're about to witness has no business happening on a hundred different levels. Which means that if he were anyone else, you'd be looking at all of this -- the surgery, the history, the three so-so starts he made in September (0-2, 3.71), his uneven history against the Nationals (just one win in five starts since they moved to Washington) -- and thinking: No way. But this is Chris Carpenter we're talking about.

So are you sure it's safe to bet against this man? Really?

"The fact that he's even pitching shows the kind of person he is and the hard worker he is," said Cardinals closer Jason Motte. "He's come back, and it's unbelievable, even to us. Most people would go, 'Aw, I had my surgery. Now I'll just hang out, watch, do my rehab stuff and get ready for next year.' I think that's what a lot of guys would have done. But this guy, he's unbelievable."

The calendar tells us it is now 12 months since last October, an October in which the Cardinals somehow transformed themselves from noncontender to World Series champions, but also an October in which Carpenter's teammates look back at him as their Bob Gibson.

He won Games 1 and 7 of an epic World Series. He outdueled Yovani Gallardo in a pivotal Game 3 of the NLCS. And he carved his name in October lore forever by outdueling Roy Halladay, 1-0, in a win-or-else NLDS Game 5 for the ages -- a game that still gives his teammates chills, all these months later.

"That's going to be a game," said Wainwright, "that, when people look back at his career, is going to be maybe his defining game."

But when Carpenter arrived at the mound to start that game, he already had more than 240 innings on his 2011 odometer. And he had 273 1/3 innings when he launched his last pitch of the World Series. So he had to push himself through untold soreness and fatigue just to perform all those acts of October heroism.

When he takes the ball Wednesday, however, he'll be pitching with just 17 innings worth of wear and tear on his 2012 record. So he was asked, on the eve of that start, if that might actually make him better. Hey, it's possible, right?

"To be honest with you, I'd much rather have all the innings than not [have] the innings," he said, "because you know what you're going to get. What have I thrown, 17 innings or something? You know, that's not too many innings to work the kinks out in live games. But I'm confident in my stuff. My stuff's gotten better each time out. It was good last time against Cincinnati, and I'm looking forward to it being better this time out, too."

Scouts who followed him in September say they have to carve up their reports into two different categories. His stuff? Not quite the same. But his competitive bonfire? Still raging.

"If you asked me, would I rather pitch a Jordan Zimmermann, with great stuff, in a game like this, or hand the ball to Chris Carpenter with reduced stuff, I'd give it to Carpenter," said one of those scouts. "I'll take the guy with a proven track record when there are 50,000 screaming people in the seats and the whole world is watching, because I know I don't have to worry about getting what I saw from the two kids [Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez] Washington ran out there in Games 1 and 2, when the pressures of pitching games like this clearly got to them."

Realistically, of course, we should have no idea what to expect when this man takes the mound on Wednesday. The Nationals were the winningest team in baseball. And this will be the first postseason game played in Washington since Oct. 7, 1933. So the emotions and decibel levels will reach unprecedented heights.

It would be a test for any pitcher -- let alone a pitcher who ought to be gearing up for a bullpen session under a palm tree next February, not a huge October baseball game.

But all we can report, after speaking with a bunch of Cardinals on Tuesday, is that they can't wait to see what happens when Chris Carpenter gets reintroduced to October in this game. And perhaps that tells us something about what's possible Wednesday.

"When you're taking about Chris Carpenter, with all his success, nothing shocks me," said Wainwright. "So just get your popcorn ready. He's going to show up and be himself -- one of the best competitors of his era."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com