"Starting in K.C. he just said, forget about it," Cardinals center fielder Rick Ankiel said of his teammate Albert Pujols last week in the visitors' clubhouse at Citi Field. The Friday before, against the Royals, Pujols had begun one of those stretches -- five games, three home runs, 12 RBIs and eight hits in 19 at-bats -- that lead people, his awestruck teammates included, to joke that there must be something not entirely hominid beneath his flesh.
"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. "Eliminate him," Ankiel said in his best Schwarzenegger-as-homicidal-robot voice, expressing the thought he imagined to be running through the generally good-natured Pujols' brain, if not his neural net processor.
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 Terminator sequel than have the last two entries in that formerly august franchise, it is an idea to which the slugger has of late objected. "What, am I supposed to hit everything out of the park or get a base hit?" Pujols said to reporters last Monday night, when they asked him about a rally-killing, eighth-inning double play ball in an eventual Cardinals loss. "I'm ... human, too."
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 Chris Carpenter has incurred, among other injuries, the following: right shoulder tendonitis; a tear in the labrum of his right shoulder which required major surgery; a strain of his right biceps; nerve irritation in his right biceps; back spasms; bone spurs in his right elbow which were removed by arthroscopic surgery; ligament damage in his right elbow that necessitated Tommy John surgery; irritation of his right elbow's ulnar nerve that required it to be surgically transposed; and an oblique strain. It's a list of maladies that would make a professional bullrider blush, and Carpenter did not pitch at all in 2003, which was his first year with St. Louis, and he played in just five games between 2007 and '08.
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 Johan Santana and the Mets last Thursday, he is 5-2 with a miniscule 1.78 ERA and an even more infinitesimal WHIP of 0.701 -- the latter a simply ridiculous stat that, if it holds up through season's end and if Carpenter throws enough innings to qualify for the ERA title (and he missed six starts or so from mid-May to mid-April with that oblique injury), would smash Pedro Martinez's single-season record of 0.737.
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, Barry Zito. (Carpenter also occasionally throws a cutter and a change-up). "He's got all above-average pitches that he can locate anytime, any count, anywhere," Mets outfielder Ryan Church said. "Never gets into a pattern. It usually doesn't help to even look for certain pitches, but you've got to try. You've basically got to eliminate one of them, maybe two, and hope you get one of the other two."
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 Ubaldo Jimenez uncorked a first-inning wild pitch, and Pujols broke for home from third, but then thought better of it. He scrambled back to the bag and slid in, with his right arm stretched out to beat Garrett Atkins' tag. A moment later, Pujols stood doubled over in foul territory, clutching the arm. "This is about the worst thing that could happen right here," television play-by-play man Dan McLaughlin solemnly intoned in the FSN Midwest booth. The crowd gasped, and then fell silent, fearing the worst. When it turned out that Atkins had inadvertently spiked Pujols' hand during the play, and would be fine after a quick bandaging from a trainer, they cheered and cheered.
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.