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Carpenter's shoulder slowly regained its strength, and he was back with the Cardinals for the 2004 season. Though he had to avoid bullpen sessions between starts and even playing catch for most of the first half of the season, he wound up making 28 starts and finishing 15-5, including 6-1 with a 2.82 ERA after the All-Star break, and was named Comeback Player of the Year. The Cardinals shut him down in mid-September after he developed a biceps strain caused by the full extension he was finally getting on his pitches, the first time in 18 months he had been able to do that.
That strong 2004 was only a prelude to his historic '05. Beginning with a one-hit shutout of the Blue Jays on June 14, Carpenter embarked on a three-month tear that had never been seen in the Live Ball era (post-1920). He became the first pitcher to go undefeated over 16 consecutive starts with at least seven innings pitched and three or fewer runs allowed in each outing. Over that stretch Carpenter went 13-0, and the Cardinals won all 16 of his starts. St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan told La Russa it was "the most relentlessly outstanding pitching" he'd ever seen.
With a style befitting his last name, Carpenter relies on accuracy and versatility to compensate for what he lacks in glamour. In his toolbox are four pitches that he uses to hammer away at the strike zone with unflinching consistency. His foundation is a sinking fastball that runs in the low 90s. From there, he has a changeup that he throws from the same arm angle, as well as a cut fastball and a head-snapping curveball.
But it was his mental focus that elevated Carpenter into the game's rarefied air of elite pitchers. "When I was in Toronto, guys like Roger Clemens and Woody Williams would talk about concentrating on making one pitch at a time, but when you're a kid you have to figure it out for yourself," he says. "When I came over here I sat and watched [while he was slowly working his way back] and figured out how to do it, how to control your mind and relax and pitch. Then I found a different way to use my stuff."
His newfound ability to concentrate entirely on the next pitch served him well this postseason. In the first inning of Game 4 of the Division Series against the San Diego Padres, Carpenter walked the bases loaded and allowed two runs to score. After a visit from Duncan, he stepped off the mound and thought, I can't control the last pitch. All I can control is making one pitch. Slow it down, make one pitch. One batter later, Carpenter was out of the inning and on his way to a 6-2 win, the second of three he had this postseason.
"I'm happy now," says Carpenter, who also has a daughter, Ava, 1. "I don't take the game home with me anymore. It was the lowest of the low wondering if I was going to pitch again. Then I decided I was just going to pitch and have fun doing it. Every day's a fun day."
Few were more enjoyable than the night of Oct. 25. Over eight surgical innings in Game 3 of the World Series, Carpenter put Detroit's bats to sleep, allowing a stifling three hits, no walks and no runs. He threw a judicious 82 pitches, 55 for strikes. Four of the innings were secured with 10 or fewer pitches, including the second, when he declawed the middle of the Tigers' order-- Magglio Ordo�ez, Carlos Guillen and Ivan Rodriguez--on four pitches. By then, even the Tigers' bench could feel impending doom. "We got the sense like, Uh-oh, we could be in trouble," said Detroit first baseman Sean Casey.
When Carpenter returned to the clubhouse after the game, St. Louis reliever Braden Looper presented him with the game ball, which would be joined one day later by the lineup card. They were mementos from a masterpiece, and they would soon be on their way back to his home, so he could share them with the people who matter to him the most. As Carpenter had already learned, memories, like the careers that produce them, are worth holding on to.