Carpenter key to Cardinals' chances

Monday, April 6, 2009
In this March 6, 2009, file photo, St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Chris Carpenter throws during a spring training baseball game against the New York Mets at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. After all those operations on his meal ticket, the right arm, elbow and shoulder, Chris Carpenter got the other side involved in the offseason in the form of a colorful tattoo that spreads over half the arm. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

St. Louis needs a lot of affirmative answers to compete in the NL Central this season.

ST. LOUIS -- After all those operations on his right arm, Chris Carpenter had work on his left arm this offseason -- a colorful tattoo.

The new tattoo spreads over half the arm displaying his family via astrological signs. There's a lion for his daughter, a Leo. A crab for his wife, a Cancer. An arch for his son, a Sagittarius. A bull for himself, a Taurus.

"It's something I've been thinking about for a few years," Carpenter said. "My wife helped me come up with it.

"She loves it and so do the kids."

As for the arm that's the key to the Cardinals' chances of reaching the postseason after a two-year absence, it's all systems go.

Carpenter was his old unhittable self in spring training, with a 1.52 ERA, and he's expected to start the fourth game of the season against Pittsburgh on Thursday despite what the team described as a minor calf injury in the last of his six starts. Carpenter was scratched from his final tuneup Friday at Class AAA Memphis.

"He just felt it pull a little bit," general manager John Mozeliak said. "It was a hot, humid day, and it probably began as a cramp."

Carpenter underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery in September and then had an elbow nerve transposed to relieve irritation in November. The Cardinals eased him into competition this spring, and handed the opening day start to Adam Wainwright to avoid rotation upheaval in case of a setback.

This is Carpenter's sixth season with the Cardinals, and three of the five have been big ones -- a combined 51-18 record from 2004 to 2006. Big for the team, too, with a pair of 100-win seasons and a World Series championship.

St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Dennys Reyes, from Mexico, throws to the New York Mets during the seventh inning of a spring training baseball game in Jupiter, Fla., Wednesday, April 1, 2009. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The rotation was good enough to keep the Cardinals in the race until September last year, even though their ace was limited to 15 1/3 innings coming off reconstructive elbow surgery before shoulder woes popped up. Wainwright (11-3, 3.20), Kyle Lohse (15-6, 3.78) and Todd Wellemeyer (13-9, 3.71) will pitch before Carpenter makes his debut and fifth starter Joel Pineiro (7-7, 5.15) has been impressive all spring plus has incentive in the final year of his contract.

And now, it appears, their leader is back.

"I like the sound of Carpenter, Wainwright, Lohse, Wellemeyer and Pineiro," general manager John Mozeliak said. "I think they're all capable of doing very good things, so it's exciting."

It's a huge change from last year, when the Cardinals were hoping Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Matt Clement would recover from injuries in time but ended up with next to nothing from that trio.

The bullpen also appears sorted out from closer Jason Isringhausen's collapse last year, which left the team tied for the major lead in blown saves (31) and near the top in relief losses (31).

Rookie Jason Motte, whose fastball has been clocked in the high 90s, won a three-way battle with veteran Ryan Franklin and fellow hard-throwing youngster Chris Perez, the latter sent to Memphis. Motte's fastball is so imposing, it's allowing him to develop extra pitches on the fly.

St. Louis Cardinals Albert Pujols hits a double during the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game with the New York Mets in Jupiter, Fla., Wednesday, April 1, 2009. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

"Since you have to be aware of his fastball so much, you don't have to have a Brad Lidge slider," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.

Franklin and Kyle McClellan, groomed as a replacement starter much of spring in case Carpenter faltered, will be the bridges to the ninth. Left-handed relief was a major area of emphasis also, with Dennys Reyes and Trever Miller joining the mix.

They'll be protecting a lineup built around first baseman Albert Pujols, coming off his second NL MVP season.

Pujols is the only player in major league history to top 30 homers and 100 RBIs each of his eight seasons. There's plenty of pop surrounding him, even while they wait for third baseman Troy Glaus to return from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January.

St. Louis Cardinals Rick Ankiel, left, gets a handshake from third base coach Jose Oquendo after his solo first-inning home run off New York Mets Johan Santana during the spring training baseball game in Jupiter, Fla. Wednesday, April 1, 2009. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Chris Duncan was among the spring leaders with 18 RBIs to go with three homers, reflecting a recovery from neck disc surgery in the offseason. He'll be among a potential four-man outfield rotation with Ryan Ludwick (34 homers, 117 RBIs), Rick Ankiel (27 homers) and top- prospect Colby Rasmus.

Leadoff man Skip Schumaker appeared to pull off an unusual conversion to second base, easing the outfield glut.

Khalil Greene was acquired from the Padres with the expectation he'll shake off his worst offensive year and provide solid defense at shortstop. David Freese, once the throw-in when the Cardinals shipped Jim Edmonds to the Padres, hit .306 with 26 homers and 91 RBIs at Memphis last year and is the likely fill-in for Glaus at third.

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