Cardinals' Carpenter delivering quiet pitch for award

Friday, September 15, 2006

The 2005 NL Cy Young winner leads the league in ERA.

ST. LOUIS -- Just like his National League Cy Young season last year, Chris Carpenter has everything working for him. Well, almost everything.

The St. Louis Cardinals' ace is among the front-runners to win it again, his portfolio lacking only an impressive victory total. He's tied for the NL lead with three shutouts, leads the league with a 2.84 ERA that matches his final total from last year, and is almost untouchable with a 1.47 ERA at the new Busch Stadium.

"Every time he takes the mound he's unbelievable," teammate Ronnie Belliard said.

Carpenter, who stymied the Astros with a six-hitter in his last start on Monday, has impressed his team with his selflessness, too. He's 14-6 instead of closing in on his second straight 20-win season, largely because of six no-decisions in which he allowed one or zero runs, but there have been no complaints.

"Everything hasn't worked for him," manager Tony La Russa said. "And he has just gotten himself ready to pitch. He's such a horse."

Carpenter is gearing up for October with three complete games, two of them shutouts, in his last six starts. The trouble is, he's the only sure thing on a rotation that once was among baseball's best and finds itself in shambles with the postseason looming.

Shoulder woes have taken No. 2 starter Mark Mulder out of the picture after season-ending rotator cuff surgery earlier this week. Mulder was 6-7 with a 7.14 ERA.

Jason Marquis is an unreliable mix of achievement and failure, ranking among the league leaders with 14 victories but also with 15 losses. Worst of all, he's saddled with an unsightly 5.82 ERA after surrendering four runs before being pulled with no outs in the second inning in a loss to Houston on Wednesday.

Jeff Weaver, the reclamation project signed in July, has been no improvement over the reclamation project, Sidney Ponson, he replaced. Weaver is 3-4 with a 5.48 ERA in 12 starts after getting knocked out in the sixth on Tuesday.

Rookie Anthony Reyes has had some impressive outings but is showing signs of fatigue. After failing to make it out of the third in his last start, he skipped a turn in the rotation Wednesday.

That leaves Carpenter and Jeff Suppan (11-7), who has a 2.07 ERA since the All-Star break after a 5.83 ERA in the first half, as the only members of the rotation who aren't a total roll of the dice.

Carpenter has 35 victories the last two years, tied with Jon Garland of the White Sox for the most in the major leagues. His three shutouts are tied with Arizona's Brandon Webb, his chief competition for the Cy Young. His control is impeccable, with only five walks in 62 1/3 innings in his last eight starts.

"He can throw everything for a strike, and he can throw it to both sides of the plate," said Astros shortstop Adam Everett said. "He can throw it 94 mph and take some off of his cutter, and then he's got that big curveball.

"That's why he won the Cy Young last year and may win it again this year."

Carpenter faces the Giants on Saturday and probably will have two more starts after that, unless the Cardinals need him in the regular-season finale. He promises to drive hard to the finish.

Last year, that wasn't the case. He mentally shut things down in early September with the Cardinals comfortably ahead, and limped in with a 9.14 ERA in his last four starts.

"I was preparing myself two weeks early for the first start of the playoffs," Carpenter said. "I learned last year to not let those get away."

He relearned that lesson two starts ago when he gave up five runs, four earned, while squandering a two-run lead in 5 1/3 innings at Washington. He knows if he stays on his game, he's tough to beat.

"There's been times when mentally I've lost my focus, and that was one of those games," Carpenter said. "Before you know it, you're out of the game.

"I'll try as hard as I can to prepare myself mentally and physically to do the best I can."

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