LOS ANGELES -- In no small way, the Cardinals got two huge victories for the price of one to close out a rough trip in a big way here Sunday.
Ace Chris Carpenter, the right-hander who doubles as the heart and soul of this Cardinals' club, will make his first start of the season Friday against the Cubs in Chicago.
Taken together with a hard-earned 5-2, 12-inning win over the Dodgers that moved the Cardinals back to one game ahead of Los Angeles for the second NL wild-card spot with just 15 games remaining, Sunday turned out to be one heck of a good day if you were wearing a St. Louis uniform.
"Heck yeah," said closer Jason Motte, who rebounded from a blown save Saturday to scoop up his 35th save of the season Sunday. "You get a guy like that back ... it's awesome.
"You know he's not going to go and pitch unless he's 100 percent. That's the kind of competitor he is. He competes his butt off."
Don't the Cardinals know it, given how the big right-hander has helped pitch them to two World Series wins (2006 and 2011) during his nine years with the organization.
But talk about a delayed encore. After last October's heroics, which included earning two wins over Texas, Carpenter underwent a July 19 procedure to treat Thoracic outlet syndrome after experiencing weakness in his neck and pitching shoulder during spring training.
The Cardinals thought Carpenter was done for the season.
Not so fast.
"I'm looking forward to it," Carpenter said of his Wrigley Field start. "I feel good.
"I didn't think it would happen this year. Fortuntely, it is."
Carpenter threw a 95-pitch simulated game here on Saturday and was thrilled Sunday not only with the way that went, but with the way his body bounced back 24 hours later. He threw all of his pitches and said his stuff is where he wants it.
Matheny declined to outline anything more for Carpenter beyond Friday. By slotting him in then, Carpenter could make two more regular-season starts -- Sept. 26 at Houston and then Oct. 1 against the Reds -- or, the Cards could give him some extra rest and slot him in to pitch the NL Wild-Card game on Oct. 5.
"We're excited to watch him pitch in Chicago," Matheny said, grinning, when the wild-card idea was broached.
Whenever, wherever ... the Cardinals are simply thrilled at the prospect of Carpenter making a late entry into the stretch run after he went 11-9 with a 3.45 ERA over 34 starts last year to help propel the Cardinals to another title.
"He's a presence on this team," Matheny said. "He's a leader.
"We're excited for him and we're excited for us. We're anxious to watch him pitch."
Though he threw 95 pitches Saturday, Carpenter noted that a simulated game is not nearly as taxing as a championship season game, let alone one in the final two weeks of a playoff push. So as to the question of how deep into a game Carpenter might be able to go, be it 100 pitches or somewhere thereabouts. ...
"I'm not sure what they're going to do," he said. "I'm looking forward to Friday. I'm excited to get out there and try to help this team win."
And the Cardinals are thrilled he is in position to do so.
"Oooh, that's huge," third baseman David Freese said. "Huge.
"Just him being on the road with us and being around this team helps. He's an animal. The guy has a desire to win.
"There are only a few [games] left. And he's going to do what he can to help."
Said Motte: "The past month or so, he started coming on road trips. He's like, 'All right, let's go.' He brings that attitude.
"If we need to get yelled at or if we need a boot in the rear end, he'd be the one to do it. People respect him and listen to him."