"Starting in K.C. he just said, forget about it," Cardinals center fielder
"He's the Machine," Ankiel said, before calling out to Pujols for corroboration. "Hey, Machine!" Ankiel shouted, inadvertently interrupting Pujols in mid-conversation. Pujols, perturbed, glared at Ankiel. "Why are you looking at me like that?" said Ankiel, feigning fear. "
While the idea that Pujols is a finely engineered machine, sent from the future to destroy both baseballs and impudent teammates, might make for a more compelling
As important as Pujols is to the Cardinals -- and there is clearly no player in Major League Baseball who is more integral to his team's success -- he knows that even he can't carry St. Louis to the postseason by himself. His extraordinary and mechanically consistent production might make the Cardinals a winning ballclub (they have finished below .500 just once during his nine-year career), but to reach October they will need an equally regular contribution from, at the least, their second-most important player -- and, in recent years, that player has again and again fallen victim to frailties that are all too human.
Over the past seven seasons, 34-year-old pitcher
When Carpenter does pitch, though, he is a clear-cut ace, one of the top five starters in the game. Carpenter won the NL Cy Young Award in 2005 and finished third the following season, and this year he's been better than ever. Even after an unlucky 3-2 loss to
Carpenter's dominance stems from his mastery of four distinct pitches: a four-seam fastball that can reach 95 miles per hour, a two-seamer, a slider and a curveball that ranks among baseball's best, and, according to advanced statistics at fangraphs.com, vertically breaks an astounding 9.4 inches on average -- equal to baseball's reigning curveball king,
The Cardinals' recent performance, not surprisingly, has been inextricably linked to Carpenter's presence, or lack thereof. He wins games by himself, of course, but at his best he is also an innings-eater who keeps the club's bullpen fresh, and an experienced competitor who sets the tone for his greener rotation-mates. The club made the playoffs after each of his largely healthy seasons, from '04 to '06, and won the World Series in the last of those. They missed the postseason with Carpenter on the sidelines in '07 and '08, and during that time won just four more games than they lost. Over the course of the 30 games this season that Carpenter spent on the DL, the Cardinals staff's ERA was a middling 4.47; when Carpenter has been active, the staff's cumulative ERA is 3.48, which would rank it as baseball's best.
That Pujols is the constant that has for years kept the Cardinals above water -- and, without whom, the club would be sunk -- is no secret to anyone, least of all Cardinals fans. I'll always remember covering a game early last season in St. Louis, during which it momentarily appeared that an awful Pujol-less future had arrived. Rockies starter
Carpenter, though -- or, rather, Carpenter's health -- is the variable that will determine whether St. Louis is able to win the competitive NL Central (they're currently tied for first with the Milwaukee Brewers) or fall back to the pack, and his longstanding fragility has the St. Louis faithful watching each pitch he throws with concern, and even dread.
"I do everything off the field, in the weight room and in the training room, to give myself the best chance to go out and be helpful," the soft-spoken Carpenter said. "If it's destined for me to be injured again, that's just what's going to happen."
One twinge in Carpenter's right arm, one grimace on his face, and the Cardinals' destiny will become instantly gloomy, no matter what the incomparable Pujols does.