St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Chris Carpenter, sidelined with shoulder woes, throws in spring traing as pitching coach Derek Lilliquist (behind him right) watches. Credit: Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

Chris Carpenter Ills Can Doom Cards

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This is an ugly instant replay. A year ago at this time the St. Louis Cardinals learned that ace pitcher Adam Wainwright would miss the entire season with an injury. Almost precisely a year later the Cardinals have learned that ace pitcher Chris Carpenter will be out indefinitely with an injury.

Somehow, against the odds, the Cardinals adjusted, adapted, recouped, and won the World Series without one of their top starters in 2011. It was a nifty achievement.This year, minus Albert Pujols, who left in free agency, they have the same long-odds challenge with iffiness surrounding one of their most important players. I don’t think they can overcome a key pitcher’s significant downtime again.

St. Louis fans spent about a half hour celebrating the team’s unlikely run into the playoffs, through the playoffs and to the world championship title before Pujols departed and long-time manager Tony La Russa retired. Those are huge holes to fill, but losing one of the best guys in the rotation could be fatal to playoff hopes this year. I pegged the Cardinals as no better than second in the National League Central Division to the Cincinnati Reds, and with 6-foot-6, 230-pound right-hander Carpenter out for an extended period that won’t improve their chances of picking off one of baseball’s new Wild Card playoff slots.

The best thing the Cardinals have going for them right now is geography, as in the division in which they are located. Last season the Milwaukee Brewers won the division crown. But the Brewers are likely to be weaker without Prince Fielder. And the bottom feeders like the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates are so far from contending the Cardinals could probably lose Carpenter and Wainwright and still finish ahead of those clubs.

Carpenter is 36, and turns 37 soon after the 2012 season starts. It is not a good age to be coping with nerve irritation in the pitching shoulder, as this injury has been described. Last year Carpenter was a so-so 11-9 during the regular season with a solid 3.45 earned run average. But he was a killer in the playoffs and Series, going 4-0 with a 3.25 ERA.  And he started six post-season games. Carpenter’s grandest moment came in the National League Division Series’ deciding fifth game when he out-dueled the Phillies’ Roy Halladay 1-0 by throwing a three-hit shutout to give the upstart Cardinals the upset over the NL favorite.

Lifetime Carpenter is 144-92, a winning percentage of 61, and he has been with the Cardinals since 2004 after breaking in with Toronto. His winning percentage is nearly 70 percent with the Cardinals alone. Carpenter won the 2005 National League Cy Young Award when he went 21-5. However, Carpenter missed most of 2007 and 2008 with injuries and some felt his career was over. Instead, he rebounded with a 17-4 record in 2009 and was named the league’s Comeback Player of the Year.

That injury history justifies Cardinal worries now, not only how soon Carpenter might return to the mound this season, but where he stands as a long-term member of the organization. How long will Chris Carpenter be out? Can he come back? Or is this the end for his fragile throwing machinery?

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Tags: Adam Wainwright Albert Pujols Chicago Cubs Chris Carpenter Cincinnati Reds Cy Young Award Houston Astros Milwaukee Brewers Philadelphia Phillies Pittsburgh Pirates Prince Fielder Roy Halladay St Louis Cardinals Tony La Russa

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