While Mulder, who averaged 18 wins a year in four seasons with Oakland, may have the most impressive credentials on the St. Louis staff, the lanky, 30-year-old Carpenter possesses the most electric stuff. That's saying a lot, considering two years ago he was nearly done with baseball. In September 2002 Carpenter had arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder to repair a torn labrum; he missed the remainder of that season and all of the next. (In July 2003 he had more surgery on the shoulder, to remove scar tissue.) Ten months after the operation he still couldn't wash his hair or pick up his son, Sam, because of the pain. One summer night he had a 3 a.m. conversation with his wife, Alyson, about whether he should quit.
"I had worked my butt off to come back, and things still weren't working," says Carpenter. "I was sick and tired of hurting every day and started to ask myself if it was all worth it. At that point I would have been happy just spending time with my family, but my wife talked me out of it. She knew that years down the road I'd be unhappy away from baseball."
Last year Carpenter returned to the mound and went 15--5 with a 3.46 ERA before bruising a nerve near his right biceps in a start on Sept. 18, an injury that cost him the rest of the season. A New Hampshire native who grew up a Red Sox fan, he watched the 2004 World Series from the dugout. "You could just see that it pained him not to be out there for us," says Morris, "but maybe Chris getting that time was a blessing in disguise. Now we get him stronger and more rested for the entire season."
For the first time in years Carpenter is not holding back as he unleashes a pitch. "Last year I didn't throw in bullpens for most of the year and couldn't work on stuff on the side," he says. "I feel great now. I could dwell on the disappointment of not pitching in the playoffs last year, but if there's anything I've learned over the last few years, it's patience."
While the starting pitchers have been firing on all cylinders, some of the Cardinals' biggest boppers have had substandard early seasons. Last year third baseman Scott Rolen hit .314 with 34 home runs and 124 RBIs, but this season he was batting .257 with five homers when he had arthroscopic surgery on May 13 to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. (He returned to the lineup on Sunday and went 1 for 4 with a run scored.) Rightfielder Larry Walker, 38, a career .314 hitter entering the year, was batting .253 with seven homers through Sunday and talking retirement. Centerfielder Jim Edmonds (.285, 11 home runs) was on pace to put up his worst power numbers since 1998. "Even Albert isn't swinging the bat as well as he should be," says Grudzielanek, despite Pujols's numbers (.332, 17 homers, 56 RBIs). "You get the feeling he really hasn't gotten hot."
Maybe not, but St. Louis is still rolling, and Pujols, who hit a game-winning homer against the Devil Rays last Saturday, is still headed for 40 home runs, 100 RBIs and 100 runs as he chases his fifth straight .300-plus season. With Barry Bonds on the sideline, the 25-year-old Pujols is unquestionably the National League's premier hitter. Surrounding him and the other St. Louis mashers is a new and unexpectedly productive supporting cast. At week's end David Eckstein, who replaced All-Star shortstop Edgar Renteria, had scored 39 runs and had a .379 on-base percentage. Grudzielanek, who succeeded Tony Womack at second base, was hitting .305 with 27 RBIs and 35 runs. And since May 2 catcher Yadier Molina, Mike Matheny's replacement, had hit .288 with 17 RBIs.
Molina's offensive contributions have been the most surprising. The baby-faced 22-year-old entered the season with only 135 major league at bats and was widely regarded as a light-hitting defensive specialist. (At week's end he'd nailed 17 base runners, tied for the league lead.) But under the guidance of Pujols, with whom he often studies video before games, Molina has become a potent hitter. After batting .162 in April, Molina was advised by Pujols to crouch lower in his stance so he could stay back on pitches. "Being around Albert and watching him every day has helped me grow," says Molina, whose older brothers, Bengie and Jose, are Los Angeles Angels catchers. "Albert is the best teacher I could ever have."
On Saturday night against Tampa Bay, Molina scored the game-tying run in the fifth inning. Then, in the sixth, he drove in the Cards' last run to seal the 5--2 win, their 16th in 24 games. Afterward St. Louis players conducted hushed interviews in various pockets of the visitors' locker room. There was no yelling, no celebrating, no music blaring. It was just another day in the Cardinals' clubhouse. Another day closer to October.
Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa is stalking the white-haired Tiger on the winningest manager's list