"We've missed the postseason the last two years," La Russa said this morning. "And he hasn't pitched in two years. So he's very important. If he's healthy, he's as good as anybody."
By all indications, Carpenter is healthy. He pitched six scoreless and nearly spotless innings today against the Orioles, and in four starts this spring he has pitched 14 innings without allowing a run. Of the 17 balls put in play, 16 were hit on the ground.
"It's like old Carp," second baseman Skip Schumaker said. "He had one ball in the air. Is that good? When you get a 3-1 swing off the end of the bat every time . . . well, I can play second base then."
Carpenter's four starts this spring match the number he has been able to make the last two seasons combined, as he has battled elbow and shoulder problems.
In Carpenter's five seasons with the Cardinals, the team is 67-29 in games he starts.
Carpenter was the Cardinals' opening day starter from 2005-07, but it appears that Adam Wainwright will start on opening day this year. The way the Cards have set up the spring training rotation, Wainwright would be followed by Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer and then Carpenter and Joel Pineiro.
Asked how important he feels to the Cardinals' hopes, Carpenter pointed to the rest of the rotation.
"I think it's all five of us," he said. "I think we have five guys who have a chance to be really good, and who have proven they can be really good."
That obviously includes Carpenter -- a healthy Carpenter, anyway.
"It's nice to be able to go out and pitch and not be concerned that something's going to hurt," he said.
The last two years, through Tommy John surgery on his elbow and surgery to transpose the ulnar nerve leading to his shoulder, something almost always has hurt.
Nothing hurts now, except maybe the chances of the teams that Carpenter will be facing.