JUPITER, Fla. -- As Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter threw off the mound Tuesday, manager Tony La Russa said with great hope, "If we can catch a health break with him '' He didn't complete the sentence, but we will: If Carpenter is healthy and even close to the old Carpenter, the Cardinals have a chance to be serious contenders in the National League Central.
And there was nothing from his bullpen session Tuesday that suggested he wouldn't be ready to be a key part of the Cardinals' rotation on Opening Day.
"His stuff was great, velocity was great,'' said Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue, who handled Carpenter's 12-minute session. "But Carp is picky. He'll probably tell you he was terrible because he missed some spots. First or second time out of the box, he still wants to be perfect. That's Carp.''
What Carpenter is attempting is unprecedented in baseball history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. No one pitcher has ever thrown 600 innings and won 50 games in a three-year period, as Carpenter did in 2004-2006, then essentially missed the next two years (21 1/3 innings, zero victories) due to injuries, as Carpenter did, then come back to pitch the next year.
Former Dodgers great Don Newcombe was the last pitcher to fit that profile, but the two seasons he missed were due to the Korean War. The two years Carpenter missed were due to Tommy John surgery, then a shoulder injury, then an elbow complication that required a nerve to be transposed from one side of his elbow to the other. Now he is on the same throwing program as the rest of the Cardinals' pitchers. So far, he has had no setbacks.
"With everything that has gone on the last two years, there's always that doubt in the back of my mind,'' Carpenter said of a setback. "But when I get out on the mound and start throwing, there's nothing you do but work on your stuff and get prepared to pitch. I think there will always be a little bit of doubt for a little while, but right now, I feel great.''
That wasn't the case last year when he was attempting to come back from Tommy John surgery.
"It's been fun this spring because last spring wasn't like that,'' Carpenter said. "I was kind of off to the side doing my own thing. So it's fun to be back as part of the group.''
The Cardinals miraculously won 86 games last year without a victory from Carpenter, and without their second ace, Adam Wainwright, for two months when a finger injury left him with a tingling sensation that ran down his right arm, an injury that often affects rock climbers. Together those two won 11 games and threw 147 1/3 innings last year.
Wainwright has healed from his injury; someday soon, he will be a candidate to win the Cy Young Award. If Carpenter, 33, has recovered completely, he and Wainwright could give the Cardinals 400-plus innings pitched and 30-plus wins. Coupling Carpenter and Wainwright with Kyle Lohse and Todd Wellemeyer, who had successful seasons in 2008, would give St. Louis a very good rotation.
"[It's] like us going out there and signing a CC Sabathia type, a true ace,'' Wainwright said of the return of Carpenter. "He's won a Cy Young in 2005, and he pitches 230 innings a year when healthy. If we can get him back in our rotation, we're going to be strong.''
With the Cardinals, it's not a matter of if Carpenter will return; it's when. And when should be April 6.
"I've seen too much of his competitive side to ever doubt him,'' Wainwright said. "He looks ready to me. He says he's ready. I don't think he's lying to us. I tell you what, if we had 80 percent of Chris Carpenter, we'd probably be better off for it.''
Carpenter isn't interested in 80 percent. He hasn't worked this hard for two years just to make it back. He wants to be great again. Tuesday, he wasn't as good as he would have liked.
"It was OK,'' Carpenter said of his throwing session. "The other day was better. I want to be perfect every time out. I missed some spots, but it was only my third time out. I'll be all right.''
If he is, so will the Cardinals.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May. Click here to order a copy.