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Chris Carpenter's Long Comeback [UPDATED]

Greetings from Jupiter -- the town, not the planet (to steal Svrluga's old schtick) -- where the Nationals are getting ready to face the St. Louis Cardinals and pitcher Chris Carpenter. I'm looking forward to this one, because I remember the Carpenter of 2005 and 2006, and because I hear he is close to being that guy again.

For those two years, Carpenter was about as good a pitcher as there was in the National League, as evidenced by the Cy Young Award he won in '05 and the combined 4-1 record and 2.83 ERA he posted during those two postseasons. In October 2006, the 83-win Cardinals seemed to ride one great pitcher and one great hitter all the way to the World Series title.

Carpenter's career since then? Ouch. It has been one injury after another: Elbow surgery in April 2007, which kept him out until July 2008, then a shoulder strain last August, followed by a "nerve transposition" procedure in the shoulder in November. According to a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by the esteemed Joe Strauss, Carpenter treats his career these days not as year-to-year or game-to-game, but as pitch-to-pitch.

It is probably not an understatement to tab Carpenter as one of the half-dozen or so key players in the game this season, given how close to contention the Cardinals expect to be and how big a boost it would be to have anything resembling the Carpenter of 2005-06 atop their rotation (with Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro behind him).

"You don't want to overstate it, in one way, because he's one-fifth of the rotation," Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said. "But he's really important, because if he takes the ball you've got one as good as anyone."

But perhaps just as importantly, the Cardinals would gain an enormous emotional boost from having their ace back on the mound. It's not usually good policy to become emotionally invested in the health travails of an injured player, but when it comes to Carpenter the Cardinals can't help it.

"The thing you can't understate is his affect on the club," La Russa said. "This guy has worked so hard [to get back]. And he's not about the money at all. Guys like that, it eats their heart out when they're not in the action. We hold our breath all the time. It's important for us, but it's even more important for him."

Pitching coach Dave Duncan said: "There are just guys you really care about and root for, because of what they represent. [Carpenter] represents everything that's good."

[Update at 2:50 p.m.: Carpenter is now out of the game, having thrown five superb innings, allowing three hits and a pair of unearned runs, while walking none and striking out six. His ERA through 19 spring innings? 0.00.]

[Update, again, at 4 p.m.: Count the Nationals as impressed. Here's Nick Johnson's take: "Tough. Very tough. Worked both sides of the plate. Nice curve ball. Plenty of sink. He looked like he's back." And here's Manny Acta, when asked if Carpenter today resembled the Carpenter of 2005-06: "Yes. He's got that sink going, [and] a good sharp breaking ball. He's as tough as it gets. So he's pretty close. This is our second time facing him [this spring]. He's there."]

By Dave Sheinin  |  March 23, 2009; 5:35 PM ET
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