ST. LOUIS -- A souvenir game-used baseball sat on the top shelf of the locker of Chris Carpenter, already complete with a Major League Baseball sticker of authenticity. The baseball had been pitched by St. Louis reliever Braden Looper for the last out of the Cardinals' 5-0 victory in Game 3, but Looper turned it over to its rightful owner.
With eight of the most efficient innings you'll ever find this time of year -- the commercial breaks were longer than his half innings -- Carpenter claimed ownership of this game and a reputation as one of the game's great postseason pitchers. Not bad for a guy making his first career World Series start, which he claimed to treat just like any other.
"You realize the situation that you're in because there are seven times as many media people and there are only two teams playing for the championship," Carpenter said, stone-faced as ever. "But you have to realize your job is the same as it is on April 14. Your job is to go out and execute pitches."
Of course, gameballs from April 14 generally are not worth saving. This game was a keeper, similar to the one Greg Maddux pitched at Yankee Stadium in Game 2 of the 1996 World Series. Maddux, whom Wade Boggs compared that night to David Copperfield in his ability to make pitches seemingly disappear, called it the kind of game "you take to your grave."
What we have in the 102nd World Series may not be a very dramatic series nor, outside of Kenny Rogers making a farce of the rulebook, a very interesting one, but it is a starting pitcher's series. Slugfests and comebacks have been ruled out thanks to, in order, Anthony Reyes, Rogers and Carpenter. There's little reason to believe, given the mediocrity and lack of depth in these lineups, that the pattern will change.
Carpenter is the only Cy Young Award winner in the series and by far the most complete pitcher in the series, and the imprint he left on Game 3 is a huge one. The Cardinals have the warm feeling of knowing they have a sharp, rested Carpenter in their pocket for a Game 7, should the series get that far. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, of course, has the option of skipping Reyes in Game 5 and lining up JeffWeaver, Carpenter and Jeff Suppan on short rest for Games 5, 6 and 7. Carpenter, having had little more than a glorified side session with just 82 pitches in Game 3, could bounce back easily for that scenario, but why bother pressing the issue with three starters when Reyes pitched a comforting gem in Game 1?
With their 83 regular season wins, which ranked them a humble 13th in all of baseball, the Cardinals appear most unlikely, perhaps undeserving even, of being two games away from the franchise's first world championship in nearly a quarter of a century. But this is Wild Card Era baseball, where regular season strength is mitigated by having to deal with three rounds of playoffs. And the best decision La Russa ever made to navigate these waters was to hold off from having Carpenter pitch the final day of the regular season.
St. Louis backed into the playoffs with a loss and Carpenter has been available to start five of the team's 14 postseason games. Is there anybody else you'd rather have starting a postseason games right now -- whether or not their team is in the playoffs? Consider this: Carpenter has started 101 games for the Cardinals over three seasons, including the postseason. They have won 72 of those games, a phenomenal .713 rate that's even better in October. The Cardinals are 7-1 when they give the ball in the postseason to Carpenter, who is 5-1 with a 2.53 ERA in those starts -- nearly a run and a half better than his career ERA. You just might be looking at the successor to John Smoltz as the top money starting pitcher in October.
"If you execute and make quality pitches you're going to get outs,'' Carpenter said, as clinically cold at his locker after the game as he was on the mound.