ST. LOUIS -- The baseball postseason was degenerating into sloppy slugfests in which relief pitchers were getting more outs than starting pitchers. What in the name of Bob Gibson had happened to the well-pitched game? Chris Carpenter, a pitcher unlike anybody else in his generation, finally restored order to what Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, through gritted teeth, had called one "wacky" October.
It wasn't the sort of game that goes in a Cooperstown trophy case -- six innings, two runs allowed in a 3-2 St. Louis win in World Series Game 1 -- unless you measure it by the low standards of this postseason. It was only the 12th quality start win among 64 starts. And now Carpenter owns two of them, at last providing necessary ballast: the ace of a team taking the ball in Game 1 at home and taking care of business.
With the win, Carpenter replaced Gibson as the winningest pitcher in Cardinals postseason history. Yes, we have more rounds of the playoffs than back in Gibson's day, but that's an impressive imperator nonetheless. It is not without portfolio: Carpenter is now 8-2 with a 3.10 ERA in 13 postseason games, in which the Cardinals are 11-2.
"What sets him apart is focus," teammate Adam Wainwright said. "From pitch to pitch, his focus puts him a cut above other pitchers with good stuff. You know, as a young player you pattern yourself after pitchers who you are around. And with Carp, it's not because he has the best stuff that makes him someone you want to copy. It's the work ethic. That's what I saw early on."
Here's what you must understand about what Carpenter did in Game 1 that goes well beyond his pitching line in the box score. The guy is 36 years old. He has faced more batters this year (1,088) than in any other year in his career. He has started more games over the past two seasons, 73, postseason included, than any pitcher in baseball with the exception of his Game 1 opponent, C.J. Wilson.
His elbow has been barking. He had no curveball Wednesday night -- the pitch he threw 39 times to outpitch Roy Halladay in that 1-0 NLDS Game 5. Wednesday night, against a red-hot lineup packed with power, he threw seven curveballs -- none among his first 30 pitches of the game -- and just two for strikes. Two.
And yet without spinning the baseball he muffled the Rangers. He did it virtually with just two pitches: a sinker and a cutter. Given his age, his workload this season and last and the power in the Texas lineup, it was a vintage outing. At his best at the end of his night this deep into the year, with the go-ahead run at second base in the sixth, he retired Josh Hamilton and Michael Young, his final two hitters. Carpenter held Texas to one hit in seven at-bats with runners on, the lone exception an impressive opposite-field homer by Mike Napoli.
Carpenter did have issues with the slickness of the baseballs on a cold, wet night, which may have contributed to his lack of a curveball. But catcher Yadier Molina said, "The movement on his sinker was so good, we just stayed with it."
"It proves," Wainwright said, "that he has more than one way to beat you."
Said closer Jason Motte, "That's Carp. Whether it's World Series Game 1 or a game in mid-May, he takes the ball assuming it's his game. He's got an amazing two-seamer. And his cutter is filthy."
Look around baseball. The ace, elder veteran pitcher doesn't exist any more in this testing era. Carpenter is the only pitcher in the past three years to throw 200 innings and post a winning record at age 36 or older.
Indeed, there were only six other starting pitchers this season as old as Carpenter -- and they all looked old. They were a combined 53-77, with none of them posting winning records.
Carpenter stands alone as a guy who has held his stuff through age and workload. He is, by every definition, still an ace. This is the game you want out of your ace in Game 1 -- not the game Wilson gave Texas: six walks, a hit batter, a wild pitch and that disastrous decision to tiptoe around Nick Punto in the fateful sixth.
How important is it for an ace to set the tone? Teams winning Game 1 have won 12 of the past 14 World Series.
"I'll go back to 2006 when we went to Detroit and won Game 1," Carpenter said. "I remember the confidence level that our ballclub had going into Game 2 knowing we were facing Kenny Rogers, and it really didn't matter what happened to be honest with you. I remember getting on the bus and everybody was like, whatever, it's 1-1 and we're going back to our place.
"Is it the defining factor of the series? Absolutely not. But I do remember the confidence level that we had after winning one game, especially Game 1 in their place. I think it's a good thing for us."