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Chris Carpenter

In Baseball, Long form on July 19, 2012 at 12:48 am

The St. Louis Cardinals again will have to defend their World Series championship without Chris Carpenter after persistent shoulder soreness forced the ace right hander to miss his fourth full season in the last decade.

Chris Carpenter hates to lose. It bothers him. It gnaws at him. It pisses him off. When an opposing batter turns on a mistake pitch and launches it out of the park, even the fans in the upper deck can hear Carpenter’s cursing. Losing is for lesser pitchers, for weaker pitchers. It isn’t what 10-year veterans with 20-win seasons and Cy Young awards do. That’s what makes Carpenter’s 2012 season so frustrating. He hasn’t yet taken a loss, but he’s already been defeated — by his own body. On July 3, the St. Louis Cardinals decided to shut down Carpenter’s rehab, ending his season before he threw a pitch. Another year squandered. Another long off-season.

A visit to a specialist is anathema for a ballplayer. Not being in the dugout is bad enough, and going to see a doctor is worse, but an appointment with a specialist is like attending your own wake — the ballplayer sits in a room filled with strangers and watches as his career is killed by an MRI.

Carpenter had an appointment with a specialist. His arm was numb. His fingers tingled. His right shoulder was tired. He’d led the league in innings pitched in 2011 — 237.1, his highest total since 2005 — and some fatigue could be expected on that account. But this wasn’t normal fatigue. Something was wrong with Carpenter’s right arm. His fastball didn’t have its normal zip. His breaking balls stayed flat. He couldn’t get on top of hitters. The specialist had a name for Carpenter’s problems: thoracic outlet syndrome. He tried to explain the diagnosis to Carpenter, something about the nerves in his shoulder not firing properly, but it didn’t matter. Thoracic outlet syndrome meant one thing for Carpenter— broken goddamn pitcher. For the fourth time in a decade, Carpenter’s arm forced him to miss an entire season.

Carpenter hadn’t always been a BGP case. His body used to be an asset. In fact, when he was in high school, the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks scouted him as a defenseman. Imagine, 6 feet, 6 inches of pure New Hampshire grit and gravel burning down the ice to check you into the wall. But when the Toronto Blue Jays picked him 15th overall in the 1994 baseball draft, that 6’ 6” frame became a finely-tuned pitching machine.

He progressed quickly through the minor leagues. In barely three years, Carpenter jumped from the rookie Pioneer League to AAA Syracuse. That 6’ 6” frame struck out everyone — Carpenter struck out more than 300 batters in two AA seasons, and he struck out two batters for every one that he walked. By 1997, Baseball America rated Carpenter as the 28th-best prospect in baseball.  Even at 22, it was obvious that Carpenter had an unparalleled drive to win — he wanted to dominate every at-bat, every pitch. If a batted ball snuck by an infielder, Carpenter would huff and haw and kick up dirt to show his displeasure. That grounder was a goddamn gift, and you turned it into a goddamn hit! The only acceptable outcome was an out. By 1997, the Blue Jays had seen enough — Chris Carpenter had an appointment with the show.

Those first few months with the Blue Jays were a struggle. Carpenter debuted May 22, but he didn’t record his first win until August 19. Carpenter hated to lose. Losing meant that you hadn’t done your job, that you hadn’t been prepared, that you’d gone out onto the mound and gotten your ass kicked. That’s what one loss meant. But Carpenter didn’t lose just once — he lost five consecutive times. Carpenter stabilized near the end of his rookie season, but that was unacceptable. Most rookies were happy just to be in the majors. Carpenter wanted to dominate.

But he wouldn’t dominate with the Blue Jays. After a rebound in the next season, Carpenter made only 24 starts in an injury-filled 1999 season. He returned to Toronto’s starting rotation in 2000, but he struggled throughout the season and ended up with a 10-12 record and a 6.26 ERA. Carpenter pitched well in the first half of the 2001 season, but he fell apart after the all-star break, at one point losing seven of 10 decisions, to finish at 11-11. He entered 2002 with renewed determination, but a six-run shellacking by the Boston Red Sox set the tone for that season. The Blue Jays placed Carpenter on the disabled list in August, and released him in September.

The Cardinals took a flier on Carpenter in 2003. He was still young — just 28 — and only a few years removed from being one of the hottest prospects in baseball. Carpenter had the physical talent. He had the determination. Now, he also had a second chance. But the plan for a mid-season return to the mound collapsed when Carpenter underwent labrum surgery. Instead of a triumphant return, Carpenter missed the entire 2003 season.

By 2004, Carpenter had missed nearly three major league seasons — about half of his career. But that season, he pitched like the hardnosed hockey player of his high school days, winning 15 games for the first time in his career and tallying a career-low 3.46 ERA. The Cardinals won the National League Pennant, due in part to Carpenter’s stellar pitching. But late season aches turned into a nerve problem in his biceps, and Carpenter missed the rest of the season. St. Louis went on to face the Red Sox without their best arm, and Boston pounced, sweeping the World Series 4-0.

Undeterred by the disappointing end to his 2004 season, Carpenter compiled his two best seasons in 2005 and 2006. Highlighted by a 1-hit shutout over his former team, the Blue Jays, Carpenter won the National League Cy Young award in 2005. He only finished third in Cy Young Balloting in 2006, but he made up for it by winning the World Series in six games over the Detroit Tigers. Finally, Carpenter’s statistics matched his determination.

But determination doesn’t buy health, and unhealthy pitchers don’t win ballgames. Carpenter was placed on the DL after one start in 2007. He missed the rest of the season after undergoing his second Tommy John surgery to replace a damaged ligament in his right arm. After being cleared to throw in 2008, the Cardinals started him out in the bullpen, but he only lasted four games before going back on the DL.

Carpenter came back in 2009, ready for a fresh start. He landed, once again, on the DL with a strained oblique and missed a month of the season, but when he was healthy, he was masterful. That year, Carpenter won 17 games, lowered his ERA to 2.24 and finished third in Cy Young Balloting. He won 16 games the next year and was named to the all-star team. His win totals dropped and his ERA rose in 2011, but Carpenter compensated by pitching a few of the grittiest ballgames in Cardinals history, as St. Louis improbably marched to a seven-game World Series victory over the Texas Rangers. Even at 36, Carpenter was as tenacious as the 19-year-old hockey player on a frozen New Hampshire pond.

But the first season of what could be his last contract has turned into another season spent in doctors’ offices instead of dugouts. During spring training, Carpenter began to experience numbness and weakness in his pitching arm. The Cardinals had hoped that Carpenter’s ailments would subside with rest and allow for a late-season comeback. Instead, the team shut Carpenter down and scheduled shoulder surgery for July 19. Another year with no baseball.

Chris Carpenter’s grit and gravel turned him into one of the best pitchers in the National League. If only it could fix his shoulder.

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