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Then, more injuries. Carpenter did not win a game in 2007 or '08. So '09 represents a comeback from a comeback. Duncan never doubted. "He's so mentally tough," Duncan says. Coming into this game, Carpenter has won 10 in a row, and he leads the NL in ERA.
The two meet before the game, compare notes, come up with their plan. It is a simple one, not dissimilar from those of most other pitching coaches: Throw strikes, preferably low and away; work the individual weaknesses of hitters; give them a different look every time up. The one wrinkle in the Duncan Way is his insistence on pitching to contact. By telling his pitchers not to be afraid to put the ball in play, Duncan is empowering them, convincing them, as one former pitcher of his describes it, "that they have Cy Young stuff every time they go out there." Says Carpenter, "He gives you so much confidence. You know that if you just follow the game plan, you will be successful."
The way Carpenter pitches to Prince Fielder is telling: The Brewers' slugger comes up three times, and Carpenter starts him off with a different pitch each time. In the first he throws Fielder a changeup; in the fourth he offers him a curveball on the outside corner; in the seventh it's a 93-mph fastball up and away. Fielder is never comfortable. He grounds out and strikes out twice. The rest of the Brewers are bewildered too. Carpenter throws a one-hitter, as afternoon shadows stretch across Miller Park. The Cardinals win 3--0.
"I just stuck to the game plan," Carpenter says afterward. "It was that simple."
Tuesday, Sept. 8
St. Louis has become Lourdes for baseball pitchers. It is true for nonpitchers too—infielder Julio Lugo seems to have found new life after being dispatched from Boston; outfielder Matt Holliday is hitting like crazy again after three uninspiring months in Oakland.
Mostly, though, it's pitchers. Look around. There's Carpenter, of course. There's righty starter Joel Piñeiro, who over the last five years had won 35, lost 47 and had an unsightly 5.34 ERA. Now he's one of the better pitchers in the league—a 14-game winner with a league-leading two shutouts.
There's Ryan Franklin, a mediocre starting pitcher for much of his 10-year career. He came to St. Louis in 2007 hoping to start; instead he has become the league leader in saves.
Kyle Lohse had been traded three times before signing with St. Louis in 2008, when he won 15 games. Lohse has struggled with injuries this season, but the Cardinals believe he will be an important factor come playoff time. ("If we're lucky enough to make the playoffs," La Russa says, with a nod again toward the Baseball Gods.)
Tonight's starter, John Smoltz, wants some of this healing magic. Smoltz already has his Hall of Fame reservation. He has been a top starter and a top closer, plus he has one of the great postseason résumés in baseball history. He is also 42 and coming off shoulder surgery and a disastrous turn in the AL with Boston. It seems almost inevitable, then, that Smoltz would end up with St. Louis. He was released by the Red Sox after eight mostly dreadful starts (2--5, 8.32 ERA). He came to St. Louis, where Duncan and the Cardinals staff immediately worked on his delivery. For starters they moved the outside of his right foot so that it is flush against the rubber; in Boston his foot had been about an inch off the rubber. The change allows him to push off at a better angle, which, he says, should give his pitches more velocity and break. They also told him that he had been tipping his pitches in Boston. Whether this is true or not isn't the point: Smoltz believes it's true.