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Cardinals crossing fingers that Chris Carpenter will join rotation by July

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

The Cardinals' pitching staff has been a work in progress all season, but the masterstroke may still be to come: Chris Carpenter is encouraged from the “rigorous bullpens” he's been throwing and the club is keeping its fingers crossed that the one-time ace will join its rotation in late June or early July.

If Carpenter successfully pulls this off, it will be one of the season's most remarkable stories.

“Regardless of his role, when he decided to come back, we have to put him through very rigorous training,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak told CBSSports.com Tuesday. “The last thing we want to do is activate him and make sure he's not hurt and then have to shut him down quickly.”

A nerve problem affecting Carpenter's shoulder and neck limited him to only three starts in 2012, and things were so bleak over the winter that the Cardinals called a news conference on the eve of spring training to announce that it was “highly unlikely” that Carpenter would be able to pitch in 2013.

It sounded then like retirement was all but a formality. Then came word earlier this month that Carpenter, 38, was throwing and hoping to help the team in a late-season bullpen role.

Now, at this rate, he suddenly could be back in the rotation.

He has moved up to 80 pitches or so in his bullpen work, breaking them up by sitting down two or three times and then getting back up to continue – simulating, in other words, a normal game pace.

He next is due to throw in St. Louis on Thursday while the Cardinals are in the midst of an eight-game trip to San Diego, Los Angeles and Kansas City. He has not yet faced hitters, something that is likely to happen next week if Thursday's extended bullpen session goes well.

Mozeliak called Carpenter's progression “very encouraging.” The club is not advertising a return date yet simply because if Carpenter's program slows, well, this was just a test run, anyway. Right?

But from February's vantage point, nobody could have seen this coming just three months later. And Carpenter is especially upbeat, Mozeliak says.

“It's a 180-degee turn,” the GM said. “He was at a very low point in early February, and he's gone from there to where he really believes he can contribute. He likes his progress. He has confidence in the way he's throwing.

“In some ways, allowing him to have a rest and to work on his own terms has given him confidence.”

Without Carpenter and Kyle Lohse, winner of 16 games last season, and with Jake Westbrook (right elbow) and Jaime Garcia (left shoulder) down, the Cardinals have used a major-league leading five rookie pitchers this season: Shelby Miller (who has five wins), Seth Maness (three), John Gast (two), Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal. A sixth is scheduled to be added to that list in Wednesday's series finale in San Diego when the Cards hand the ball to Tyler Lyons, who will make his major-league debut.

Still, the Cardinals remain in first place with the best record in the National League at 28-16.

Now, Westbrook is projected to return within the next 10 days. And now Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young winner and the recipient of the 2009 NL Comeback Player of the Year award, could be back before the All-Star break.

“What a shot in the arm that would be,” Mozeliak said.

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