All the Washington Nationals are facing in Game 3 is one of the toughest, meanest, most competitive men on the planet.
Chris Carpenter is the whole package. He’s tough and ornery and competitive. His competitive fires rage. Even at 37, he still has some of the best pure stuff in baseball. If there was one game you had to win—let’s say your life depended on it—there’s no one you’d rather give the ball to than Carp.
Funny thing is, he’s such a nice man away from the field. Soft-spoken almost. Polite. Teammates love him. Trust him, too. But when it’s time to work, steer clear. He came up with the Toronto Blue Jays at a time when Roger Clemens was the ace of the staff. Whether it’s a coincidence or not, he has some of the Clemens’ fire, some of the Clemens’ toughness. He has won games when he has had no-hitter stuff. He has also won games when he’s out there on nothing more than grit, smarts and determination.
When Tony La Russa began plotting the Cardinals’ comeback last August, he ran his finger down the Cardinals’ schedule and wrote Carpenter’s name in for the 162nd game of the season. He figured that if the Cardinals could get back into the race, he’d need to win 162, and if he needed to win it, he wanted the big fella going for him. He worked his pitching schedule back from there.
Carpenter delivered that night for the Cardinals against the Astros, and he kept it going right through the playoffs. In his final five starts of the 2011 regular season, he was just about perfect, going 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA. In other words, he kept a desperate team in every game and put them in position to win.
He made six more starts in the postseason and was dominant in five of them. In Game 7, an exhausted Chris Carpenter allowed two runs in six innings. When he was done, he’d thrown 273 innings, and it was easy to wonder if that workload would take a toll in 2012. Maybe it did.
For most of this season, the Cardinals didn’t expect to have him. But he worked hard and returned to the mound. He wanted to contribute to another stretch run, but he also wanted to test himself and find out if he could be counted on in 2013.
He made his first start of 2012 on September 21. He made three starts in all and was solid—not spectacular, but solid—in every one of them. Now the Cardinals are giving him the ball in Game 3 of a National League Division Series against the Nationals on Wednesday.
Carpenter seemed relaxed on Tuesday, saying it was a thrill to get an opportunity he never expected to get. But I suspect the Cardinals believe they’ve got a great chance of winning another World Series. In a season when a rookie manager and a bunch of young players emerged, Carpenter’s return is a huge addition for these final weeks. It’ll be fascinating to see how he does in his fourth start of the season. It would be dumb to bet against him.