In the summer of 2003, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter was starting to think his baseball career was over.
He was only 28, but an intense pain in his shoulder not only kept him from being an effective major league pitcher, it kept him from doing things such as picking up his infant son, Sam. Grueling rehabilitation had not helped and, faced with the prospect of a second surgery and a second rehab, he wasn't sure he wanted to go through it again.
"The more I threw, the more my shoulder hurt," Carpenter said. "It got to the point where I couldn't go outside and play catch. I knew that something was wrong but everybody kept saying it was normal things and I had to deal with it. I knew, after my last rehab start, if that was the stuff I was going to have and that was the way I was going to feel going out to pitch, I had no chance. I didn't know if I was going to be able to come back. I thought I might have been one of those percentages where [the surgery] didn't work, where it wasn't going to get fixed. But at that point, I was more concerned about doing everyday stuff. . . . It was one of the most miserable years I've ever had."
Carpenter credits his wife, Alyson, with encouraging him to give it another try and now he is fulfilling the potential the Cardinals saw when they took a chance on signing him after his first shoulder operation in 2002. After a 20-month layoff from major league pitching, Carpenter has an 8-2 record with a 3.61 ERA and has struck out 75 hitters while walking just 19 as the Cardinals have moved into first place in the National League Central. In a division where the pitching staffs of the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros made the Cardinals' rotation look decidedly second tier at the start of the season, Carpenter has become a dominant pitcher.
"He's exceeding [our expectations]," Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "I don't think we expected him to be this good this quick. We expected it would take him a little time to get his feet on the ground. I think his competitive nature has been a plus in him doing as well as he's done up to this point."
"We knew once he got healthy," said Cardinals General Manager Walt Jocketty, "he'd be a guy who was capable of being a number one or two starter and he's certainly proved it."
Prior to this season, Carpenter hadn't made a big league start since Aug. 13, 2002, three weeks before he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. The Cardinals had always been high on Carpenter and signed him as a free agent after the season, even though they knew that he wouldn't be available until July at the earliest. But that began to look like a failed investment as he couldn't regain his previous form. Every time he started to show progress, the pain in his shoulder would come back.
Sent out for a rehabilitation assignment in Knoxville, Tenn., on July 14 of last year, Carpenter struggled mightily. In 31/3 innings, he allowed five runs on seven hits, including a home run against Class AA opposition.
Worst of all was the pain.
"I was throwing 84 [mph]," he recalled. "My breaking ball was terrible, my change-up was terrible, my fastball was 82 to 84. I was trying to throw the ball as hard as I could and every time I threw the ball it hurt. From the moment I started warming up, that's the way it was. I went to do my exercises after the start and I said to the trainer, 'There's got to be something wrong. I'm not doing it anymore.' "
The Cardinals told Carpenter, a six-year veteran who had averaged more than 10 wins a season in his previous four full seasons with the Blue Jays, to go home to New Hampshire and take some time off. He knew something was still wrong with the shoulder and knew he would need another operation.
"I had worked my butt off, as hard as I'd ever worked, to come back from the first one and I didn't know if I could do it again," he said. "So my wife and I sat at home in New Hampshire for about 10 days and I didn't know if I wanted to do it, didn't know if I wanted to go through the pain. And I enjoyed being home with my wife and son.
"She actually ended up talking me into it. She said that you have to do it, you have to see what you can do."
When doctors found the cause of the pain and told Carpenter he would need another operation, he was prepared to do it. In late July, Cardinals doctors removed scar tissue that formed after the initial surgery and the change was obvious. Within hours, "they had my arm in places I hadn't had it in years," he said. "Then I was looking forward to getting back and working out and working the arm and getting ready to start playing catch and see how it would go. . . . I could tell that this was the way it was supposed to feel."
Carpenter, who had been a high school hockey star in New Hampshire before choosing baseball, plunged into his rehabilitation, so much so that the Cardinals had to slow him down. Carpenter had offers from other teams in the offseason, but chose to re-sign with the Cardinals even though they were offering less money.
"They stuck by me the whole year," Carpenter said. "I owed it to them to come back and give them an opportunity to see why they invested what they did and took the time they did."
Carpenter came back a new pitcher. His fastball is back where it used to be in the mid-nineties (he thinks it can still go a little faster), and he feels he's a smarter pitcher.
"I've learned a lot sitting here for a year and a half not pitching," he said. The Cardinals also changed his approach, getting him to throw down in the strike zone rather than up, as he had done in the American League. "He's only in the top by mistake," Duncan said.
Carpenter admits he was a little apprehensive at the start of the season, but his early successes have made him comfortable on the mound.
Less than a year after thinking his career could be over, he may be headed to the all-star game.
"That would be fun, but I don't think about that," he said. "All I've been thinking about now is my next start and getting the ball and pitching. So far that's worked for me this year."