As the Arizona Diamondbacks charged to an improbable win in the 2001 World Series, Randy Johnson bore an increasingly heavy load. He wanted the title badly; that much was clear. If he hadn't, he likely would not have agreed to the borderline-abusive usage pattern implemented by manager Bob Brenly.
The gambit worked, though. Johnson faced 994 batters during the 2001 regular season, then 156 more during the playoffs. Ultimately, the risk brought great reward. The Diamondbacks won the Series and Johnson took home co-MVP honors.
Randy Johnson was an unmatched specimen, though. His body (especially his arm) bore the strain of that enormous amount of work without pain or problem. Only in 1996 had he ever had trouble staying on the mound.
The St. Louis Cardinals did something similar in 2011. After losing Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery during Spring Training, the team elected to pursue a title in the final pre-free agency year for superstar Albert Pujols. To do so, they relied more heavily on Chris Carpenter, 36, than any team had on anyone since the Diamondbacks and Johnson, then 37.
Carpenter faced 996 batters during the regular season, but was just getting started. He faced 47 more batters in two NLDS starts against the Phillies, including a stirring performance in Game 5 of that series. After taking on 23 more batters in a Game 3 win in the NLCS against Milwaukee, Carpenter got the ball in Game1 and 5 of the World Series, and faced 52 more opponents.
Then the rain came. Few will remember it the way they do with the 1975 World Series, but rain changed the course of that Series. Carpenter was able to come back on three days' rest for Game 7, to face 26 more batters and win the biggest game of his life. If you're keeping score at home, that's 1,144 batters faced for the season.
It's a great story about grittiness, opportunism and risk-reward exchanges. Unfortunately, its epilogue may be an ugly one. Carpenter signed a two-year, $21-million extension with the Cardinals in September, one the team may live to regret.
Pushing a pitcher with Johnson's pedigree and durability was one thing; this was another. Carpenter has already piled up one Tommy John operation, one ulnar nerve transposition and one major labrum repair during his career, not to mention a litany of uncommon strains and cramping. At 37, he would be a red-flag injury risk for 2012 under any circumstance. Given the way the team worked him, though, he is now a five-alarm nightmare of a risk.
There's no skill erosion here, though he doesn't seem to have the same sink he once did on his fastball, as his ground-ball rate fell significantly in 2011. As long as he is on the mound, Carpenter will be fine. That will not last long, though.