The crossroads for Chris Carpenter came in October 2002. A month earlier, he had undergone surgery on his right shoulder. The Toronto Blue Jays, the team for which he had pitched his entire six-year career, wanted him to go to the minors to work his way back. Carpenter, just 49-50 for his career at that point, declined the assignment. He became a free agent and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, knowing he might not pitch until deep into 2003.
As it turned out, 2003 was a total wash, and he sat out the entire season. It all makes the events of yesterday -- and, indeed, the last two years -- more remarkable. Carpenter completed his transformation when he was named the winner of the National League Cy Young Award, the first for the Cardinals since Bob Gibson won in 1970.
"I can't believe I won," Carpenter said during a conference call with reporters. "Two years ago, I didn't know if I was ever going to pitch again."
Carpenter went 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA and 213 strikeouts, and from mid-June to early September he reeled off 13 straight wins. He beat out strong competition in voting conducted by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which cast 19 of 32 first-place votes for Carpenter.
Runner-up Dontrelle Willis of Florida had more wins (22) and a better ERA (2.63), earning him 11 first-place votes. But Willis had 10 losses, and he pitched for the Marlins, who collapsed down the stretch. Houston's Roger Clemens, who already has a record seven Cy Youngs, grabbed the other two first-place votes. He led all major league starters with a 1.87 ERA, the lowest of his storied career. But he couldn't overcome the lack of run support provided by the weak-hitting Astros, who were shut out in eight of Clemens's starts. He finished 13-8, and has now finished in the top three in the Cy Young voting in 10 of his 22 seasons. Clemens and Carpenter were teammates in Toronto in 1997 and '98, when Clemens won the Cy Young both years.
The voters, two in each NL city, rewarded Carpenter's wins, and he strung them together in record-setting fashion. At one point, he went 22 consecutive starts in which he lasted at least six innings and gave up three or fewer earned runs -- a "quality start" -- which was the longest such streak since Gibson ran off 22 straight in his dominant 1968 Cy Young Award winning season. During that time, when the Cardinals basically ran away with the NL Central, Carpenter went 17-2 with a 1.66 ERA.
"I was locked in mentally for a very long period of time," Carpenter said. "Next thing you know, your teammates are behind you saying, 'Wow, look at this guy go.' "
Which is all quite a contrast to the early portion of his career. His ERA in his six seasons with Toronto was 4.83, and opposing batters hit .287 against him. In his two seasons in St. Louis, Carpenter has gone 36-10 with a 3.10 ERA, allowing opponents a .237 average.