Carpenter is crucial, so the Cardinals try to be hopeful

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals are trying hard to push optimism about Chris Carpenter. They're working hard to come up with reasons why having Carpenter on the disabled list at the beginning of the season isn't all that bad.

"As many innings as he threw last year, this could actually be a good thing," Matt Holliday said.

"Even going into camp, I was saying it might not be bad for Carp to not pitch until May," said Lance Berkman.

I understand where they're coming from. Carpenter turns 37 next month. Including the postseason, he has pitched more than 700 innings over the last three years.

He pitched Game 7 last year on Oct. 28, which gave him a short offseason.

But here are two very important things to remember about Carpenter:

First, no matter how "optimistic" the Cardinals say they are that Carpenter could pitch sometime in May, the fact is that there are few if any comparables. This isn't Tommy John surgery, where you know how long pitchers normally take to recover. In less public moments, Cardinals people will admit that any timetable is basically a guess.

Second, there's the history that Tony La Russa always liked to cite: The Cardinals made the playoffs in five of the six years where Carpenter made 20-plus starts, and every year where he made 30-plus; they missed the playoffs the two times his season was destroyed by injury.

Part of the reason for that is that Carpenter is a very good pitcher. But part of the reason is that he means more to the Cardinals on days he doesn't pitch than any other starting pitcher in the game.

"He's their leader," said Nick Punto, who spent last season with the Cardinals. "I've never been around a guy who was such an inspired leader. To an extreme, he was unbelievable in his work ethic."

It's rare for a starting pitcher to have a crossover leadership impact on position players, but Punto and others who have been around the Cardinals agree that Carpenter has it.

Adam Wainwright, back strong after Tommy John surgery, made be able to do all Carpenter did for the Cardinals on the mound (although, obviously, they're better with both of them in the rotation). But how much of Carpenter's leadership can Wainwright provide?

"I think Adam Wainwright's right there," manager Mike Matheny said. "Are they the same person? Not even close. But it's all about leadership, and Adam certainly has leadership qualities."

Wainwright took pride in his role as head Cardinals cheerleader last year. Carpenter will no doubt exert his influence when he is around the team, but at some point, if all goes well, he'll need to be away to go through the rehab process.

The Cardinals can only hope that the rehab goes well enough for that to be an issue. And they can hope that by the time Carpenter is well enough to pitch, whenever that is, they're in the race.

"As we saw last year, it's never too late to make a run," Berkman said with a smile.

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