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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Fiery, loyal more accurately describes Cards ace Carpenter

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Carpenter: 'It's probably the best year I've had as a professional.' (Getty Images)  
Carpenter: 'It's probably the best year I've had as a professional.' (Getty Images)  

ST. LOUIS -- When Chris Carpenter starts, the birds stand a little straighter on their bat on the front of the Cardinals uniform.

The red is bolder, the grass greener, the St. Louis Arch higher, the Mississippi more mighty.

Even the normally serious-as-a-seven-car-pileup Tony La Russa lightens up.

They love them some Carp around here, and if you adore the art of pitching and caught a glimpse of his last outing, you surely couldn't help but fall in love all over again, too. He stole the Phillies season and good friend Roy Halladay's Doc license in a three-hit 1-0 shutout that stands as the finest postseason pitching performance around here since Bob Gibson was dominating the 1960s.

Now, as Carpenter prepares for the encore to his What's Up, Doc? outing as the NL Championship Series continues with Game 3 on Wednesday night, just when you wonder how he can possibly match his mental focus with physical performance, along comes numbskull Zack Greinke.

As if this Cardinals club needed any more stoking, Greinke said on the eve of this NLCS that many of his Brewers teammates didn't like Carpenter because they view his attitude as "phony."

Where that comes from, it's difficult to say. There's nothing phony about Carpenter's 2005 Cy Young Award. Nothing fraudulent about his leading the NL in ERA in 2009. Nothing fake about his postseason numbers, which now are 6-2 with a 2.94 ERA in 11 postseason starts.

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Whatever his attitude, it has helped Carpenter, 36, work his way into becoming one of the great Cardinals pitchers of recent times.

"There's zero phoniness about him," Jake Westbrook, Carpenter's rotation mate this season. "He's out there competing. In the heat of a ballgame, he's competing.

"He's an emotional guy. He's an intense guy. I don't know anybody more intense than he is. He gets after it."

Some of that intensity, no doubt, has been burning deep within Carpenter ever since he threw his first fastball as a kid. Maybe some of it was developed playing hockey as a youth back home in New Hampshire (as Westbrook notes, Carpenter still talks hockey and follows the NHL's Blues).

Some of it probably was absorbed from Halladay as the two matured together in the Blue Jays organization as young pros, a couple of kids who shared a condo, fished together, vacationed together and swapped thoughts on pitching as enthusiastically as if they had secret inside information on Wall Street.

Though it all might change Wednesday night during Game 3 as Yovani Gallardo works to give the NLCS edge back to Milwaukee, truth is, not all of the Brewers view Carpenter as the St. Louis Devil.

"I like Chris," says slugger Ryan Braun, this year's NL MVP favorite. "We've been on vacation together a couple of times on those Nike trips.

"But when you compete against him, it's almost like he has an alter ego."

La Russa adds: "I think very, very few people see Chris as a villain. "I don't think the Brewers see him as a villain."

Maybe you've seen Carpenter raging on the mound, as he did with Nyjer Morgan last month, with Cincinnati last year and with others during the past few seasons. He even chewed out then-teammate Brendan Ryan in the dugout last year when the infielder brought the wrong glove to his position and left Carpenter waiting on the mound as the inning was delayed until Ryan retrieved the correct glove.

He does not suffer showboating, or on-the-job sloppiness.

"I think what separates him from others are two things," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak says. "One is his preparation. And two is his competitiveness.

"He understands before the game what he wants to do. And the other thing is he is a very competitive man. Truly, truly competitive. He seems to have a different gear in that regard.

"Whether you're playing a game of cards or darts, he's playing for keeps."

The one area recently where Carpenter relented to a degree came in recent negotiations to extend his contract by two years, for $21 million, through 2013. Mozeliak said that took all of about two hours, though the GM said to be fair, some of the groundwork had been done earlier.

Now in his 15th season, Carpenter is acutely aware of both his time and place. That's why he signed the contract last month instead of waiting for free agency (the Cardinals held an option on him for 2012).

"It's about being around a group of guys like this and retiring as a Cardinal," he says. "That's important to me. It's an amazing organization to be part of in the future."

He has been in St. Louis long enough to watch -- and appreciate -- the way Hall of Famers such as Stan Musial (when he was in better health), Lou Brock and Gibson regularly appear at Busch Stadium.

He has been around the game to know what a special group of Cardinals the current bunch is, the clubhouse chemistry this year helped in no small part when Mozeliak signed the affable -- and still relevant -- Lance Berkman.

"I've been around awhile, on a bunch of teams and with a bunch of guys, and this group of guys is very special," Carpenter says. "It's probably the best year I've had as a professional.

"We don't go a day without straight-out belly laughing about something. It's just been a blast."

As he watches Gibson and Brock in their ambassadorial roles, he hopes for the same thing himself one day.

"It's awesome, absolutely," Carpenter says. "The history and the people involved in this organization is amazing. That's another pleasure, being part of this. Seeing Red Schoendienst every day, Gibson, Brock. And it's not just those guys. Mike Matheny and Matt Morris stop by, Jason LaRue stopped in when we were in Houston, you can go on and on."

That he was fueled both by the Cardinals' past and present when he stood up to Halladay is clear. That there is a thread running from Gibson's postseason dominance in the 1960s to Carpenter silencing the streets of Philadelphia is as obvious as his fastball command and knee-buckling curve.

"It's got to be one of his best" starts ever, Mozeliak says. "So much was riding on it. And for him to be in complete control. ..."

"I don't know," Carpenter says. "It's hard. Game 3 of the [2006] World Series, that was pretty amazing. My first major-league start, even though I didn't do very well, that was amazing."

Put it this way: Carpenter's first-round clincher was enough of a keeper that he saved the ball, something he rarely does. And though he acknowledges chatting with Halladay afterward via text, he says, "I'm going to keep that to myself."

Which sure sounds more noble than phony.

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