3 to Watch: The 'Carpenter returns (and so do the Cardinals?)' edition

If the Cards make the playoffs, nobody will want to see Chris Carpenter. (Getty Images)

The way Tony La Russa told it, the Cardinals only made the playoffs in the years that Chris Carpenter stayed healthy enough to pitch.

He wasn't far off.

Carpenter basically missed the 2007 and 2008 seasons. The Cardinals missed the playoffs both years.

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Carpenter pitched regularly for the Cardinals from 2004-06, and from 2009-11. The Cardinals made the playoffs in five of those six seasons, and finished five games back in 2010.

Sure enough, with Carpenter not pitching at all, the Cardinals are about to be eliminated from the National League Central race. Sure enough, they're six games behind the wild-card leading Braves.

But there will be two wild-card teams per league this year, and with two weeks left in the season, Carpenter can help the Cardinals clinch one of them. He's set to make his season debut Friday in Chicago, and he could make two more starts after that.

He could be ready to pitch in the playoffs. The Phillies, Brewers and Rangers don't need to be reminded how big that could be.

This spring, when Carpenter was sidelined with a nerve condition in his neck, the Cardinals were suggesting that he might be ready to pitch by the end of May, or at least in June.

Later, when Carpenter needed surgery to fix the problem, the Cardinals suggested Carpenter wouldn't pitch at all.

"I didn't think it would happen this year," Carpenter said last weekend. "Fortunately it is."

Fortunately for a Cardinals team that hasn't made the playoffs without Carpenter's help since he arrived in town eight years ago, Carpenter is ready to pitch.

I'm not sure the Cardinals would win without him.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. The Cardinals, who just swept three games from the Astros, would seem to be finding another easy mark this weekend at Wrigley Field. Then again, the Cardinals are just 8-6 against the Cubs this year. Carpenter is winless in his last seven starts against the Cubs, despite a 3.88 ERA in those games. You've still got to like Carpenter's chances in Cardinals at Cubs, Friday afternoon (2:20 ET) at Wrigley Field.

2. CC Sabathia began this year with 176 career wins. The three guys starting for the A's this weekend in New York began this year with a combined one win. Sabathia makes $23 million this year. The three A's guys don't make $2 million between them. The A's and Yankees are at opposite ends of baseball's food chain, but this weekend's series could be a playoff preview. It opens with Sabathia against Jarrod Parker in A's at Yankees, Friday night (7:05 ET) at Yankee Stadium. Once again, all eyes will be on Sabathia, who claims he isn't hurt but needs some good results to prove it.

3. Three games with the Astros helped keep the Cardinals on top in the race for the second wild-card spot. Four games against the Astros didn't help the Phillies any, as they lost three of the four. Now it's the Pirates' turn. They just dropped under .500 for the first time since May, and now they go to Houston for a series that ends with Pirates at Astros, Sunday afternoon (2:05 ET) at Minute Maid Park. A.J. Burnett, who starts for the Pirates, won praise early in the season for helping to lift the team. Now Burnett is winless (with a 4.04 ERA) in his last six starts. In that span, the Pirates are 7-20, worst in baseball. Over the same span, the Astros are 9-19. The Astros can't save their season. The Pirates still could.

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