The term “ace” is thrown around rather loosely these days. Some teams have one, some don’t. Every fan thinks their team has one, but an ace is more than just the guy who starts on opening day (Bruce Chen). It’s hard to define exactly what makes an ace, but it’s some combination of character, guts, determination, leadership, and jaw-dropping stuff. The term carries a weight that few men on this earth are strong enough to carry on their shoulders.
Chris Carpenter, for one, has that strength.
The St. Louis Cardinals announced at a press conference yesterday that the big right-hander will not pitch in 2013, and implied that it is extremely unlikely he will ever throw another pitch beyond that.
If this is indeed curtains for Carpenter, he goes out with a reverence that Cardinal fans generally reserve for the names and numbers that line the hunter green outfield wall at Busch Stadium. No Cardinal fan will never forget Carp putting the team on his shoulders during the magical stretch that was September of 2011, ultimately delivering a tenth World Series trophy to the 314 area code.
Carpenter first donned a big league uniform way back in the summer of 1997 at age 22, when Bill Clinton was our commander-in-chief and gas prices hovered around $1.35 a gallon. A former first-round pick of The Toronto Blue Jays, he breezed through the minor leagues in less than three seasons. Carpenter and fellow prospect Roy Halladay had Toronto fans seeing visions of Spahn and Sain.
Carpenter struggled to gain command of his curveball and changeup, sputtering to a 49-50 record and a 4.84 ERA. Scouts agreed he had Cy Young stuff, but lacked the poise and maturity to harness it. Carp was offered an incentive-laden minor league contract, to which he refused, making him a free agent at 26.
With the endorsement of then-catcher Mike Matheny, the birds took a chance on Carpenter, hoping under the tutelage of pitching guru Dave Duncan Carpenter would reach his full potential. He was signed to a two-year contract, the team fully aware that he would miss a large portion of the first year with a torn labrum. After missing all of 2003, Carp blossomed into a top-flight workhorse pitcher, winning a Cy Young award in 2005 with a video-game statistical line which included a 21-5 record, 7 complete games, 4 shutouts, and 241 innings pitched.
Over the course of his nine seasons in St. Louis, Carpenter would establish his reputation among the elite class of starting pitchers in baseball while leading the Cardinals to three pennants and two world championships. He battled back from injuries like few we’ve ever seen, missing almost two full seasons only to come back and win 44 games over the following three years. Carpenter would earn a win in game seven of the World Series, but perhaps the defining moment of his career came on October 7th 2011.
Carpenter was called on to start game 5 of the National League Division Series after his teammates scraped back from a 2-1 deficit. Pitching on the road and against Halladay and The Philadelphia Phillies, Carp threw a masterful 3-hit shutout to give the Cardinals a 1-0 win. Watching an elated Carpenter projecting his voice until every vein in his cherry red face and neck bulged and being slapped back to reality by Albert Pujols reminded me of one of the primary reasons we all love Carpenter: his immeasurable love and passion for the game of baseball.
The organization has positioned itself to turn a page and transition towards the future with its pitching staff, and there will likely be little difference in the production between what a 38-year old Carpenter and say, Shelby Miller or Lance Lynn might produce this year. What can’t be replaced is the energy, knowledge, experience, and leadership Carp brings to the clubhouse. He will likely be in the dugout this year, serving as an intermediary between the team and the coaching staff, and surely firing R-rated suggestions at the opposing dugout when he feels the game isn’t being played the right way.
I’m sure we will see a coaching position in Carpenter’s future. This won’t be the last time we see Carp in a Cardinal uniform, and the thought of him flipping a knee-buckling hook for strike three, clenching fists and screaming holes into his lungs as he charges off the mound will forever be etched into the minds and hearts of Cardinal Nation.