Chris Carpenter's Return Puts St. Louis Cardinals Back Among NL Favorites

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistSeptember 21, 2012

Firmly entrenched in the battle for the final National League wild-card spot, the St. Louis Cardinals received a much-needed boost on Friday.

Ace Chris Carpenter made a surprising return to the mound against the Chicago Cubs, giving up two earned runs over five innings while striking out two batters and walking just one. Carpenter showed good command of his pitches and needed just 77 pitches to navigate his way through the Cubs lineup.

The 37-year-old pitcher, who had not taken the mound since Game 7 of the World Series last October, had been out all season with a nerve issue in his right shoulder, his latest in a never-ending stream of arm injuries.

Due to the injury, many wondered whether Carpenter would be able to return at all this season, and some wondered aloud whether he should just hang it up.

Nonetheless, Carpenter is back, and the Cardinals are once again among the favorites for the National League pennant due to his presence.

St. Louis came into Friday's game with a 2.5-game lead for the fifth and final National League playoff spot, but in an intense battle with a cavalcade of teams. Just 11 games remain for the Cardinals, meaning that every pitch and every at-bat has intensely magnified meaning.

Barring a setback in his recovery, Carpenter should help put St. Louis over the hump and into Major League Baseball's new one-game Wild Card playoff—likely against the Atlanta Braves.

If St. Louis is able to get past Atlanta and into the standard postseason, that is where Carpenter's true presence will be felt most. For his career, the former Cy Young winner is 9-2 with a 3.05 ERA in his 15 postseason starts and was instrumental in the Cardinals winning the 2011 World Series.

Taking the ball on short rest, Carpenter shut down the Texas Rangers for the third time in the series en route to the team's 6-2 victory.

A healthy Carpenter could prove vital once again to a St. Louis pitching staff that has struggled all season to find a true ace. After looking bleak early in the season, the Cardinals are slowly becoming sleepers once again and could make a surprising run at a repeat in October.

Whether that happens or not hinges heavily on Carpenter. If he is the same pitcher as last season, there are few teams in the National League that could win seven-game series against St. Louis.

If not, it may be one and done for St. Louis.

Nevertheless, it was simply fantastic to see Carpenter on the mound again Friday, regardless of the final outcome.