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MLB Playoffs: Chris Carpenter is a comeback story for Cardinals

October 15, 2012|By Bill Shaikin
  • Chris Carpenter, the guy whose best-case scenario involved pitching again in spring training, will start Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on Monday for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Chris Carpenter, the guy whose best-case scenario involved pitching again… (Patrick McDermott / Getty…)

SAN FRANCISCO – Chris Carpenter made his living with his right arm. It would go numb every now and then. He would pitch. That was what he did.

His right hand would go numb too. He would feel a tingling sensation in his hand, or his arm or both. He would pitch.

This went on for four years. He was one of the most effective pitchers in the major leagues.

The numbness afflicted his face this past spring. He would not pitch. If surgery worked, doctors anticipated he could pitch again next season. If surgery did not work, his career might be over.

So, in a post-season in which Derek Jeter, Johnny Cueto and Jaime Garcia have been removed from rosters because of injury, the best story might be this one: Carpenter, the guy whose best-case scenario involved pitching again in spring training, will start Game 2 of the National League championship series Monday for the St. Louis Cardinals.

“He said, ‘Don’t count me out,’ “ St. Louis Manager Mike Matheny said. “And we didn’t.”

Carpenter had occasional forearm numbness virtually from the time he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2008. He said Sunday that he was “scared” about the procedure that would be required to relieve the numbness and confident he could manage the condition.

“I wasn’t ready to pull the trigger,” he said.

In 2009, his first full season back from surgery, he went 17-4 and led the league with a 2.24 earned-run average. He threw 235 innings in 2010, and last year he pitched 273 innings – including six in Game 7 of the World Series, becoming the winning pitcher as the Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers.

From the time Carpenter reported to spring training this year, the numbness and tingling had spread beyond his hand and arm, and the symptoms had become more frequent. He could not pitch.

By July, the condition – called thoracic outlet syndrome – had gotten so troubling that the scary procedure was the only option.

“I wanted to try to pitch again,” he said. “If I didn’t have the surgery, I wasn’t going to be able to do it.”

The surgery offered no guarantees, and a fair share of risk.

“It was either going to work or not work,” he said. “There was some fear involved.”

First, the surgeon made an incision above Carpenter’s collarbone, then removed a rib using what Carpenter called “a pair of hedge-clipping looking things.”

Then, he said two of three neck muscles were removed.

“That’s where the artery and the nerve go through,” Carpenter said. “Those muscles are just like any other thing: If you work them, they’ll grow and get bigger.

“There was so much scarring and they had gotten so big that there was no room for my nerves to pass through.”

Then the scar tissue was gone. The nerves were free. The tingling and numbness had vanished.

Still, Carpenter had not pitched all season. His recovery sputtered, and the minor league seasons concluded before he could try a rehabilitation appearance.

His track record was too good for the Cardinals to tell him no. On Sept. 21, with 12 games left in the regular season, Carpenter made his season debut, pitching five innings against the Chicago Cubs.

He did not win. He pitched twice more, six innings each time. He lost both, albeit by scores of 2-0 and 3-1.

And there he was in Game 3 of the division series, pitching 5-2/3 shutout innings against the Washington Nationals.

So on Monday, the Giants face a pitcher who did not win a game during the regular season. The Cardinals could not be more thrilled.

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