With one out in the bottom of the fourth inning, Monday's Game 2 matchup between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants already had the feel of a vintage Chris Carpenter postseason performance.
You know, the kind we've come to expect from a man who entered this NLCS with an ERA under 3.00 in exactly 100 postseason innings.
After allowing a leadoff home run to Angel Pagan in the first, Carpenter had retired eight of his last nine batters and even added a two-out, RBI double in the second to atone for earlier sins.
Then it all came undone.
Line-drive double by Brandon Belt. Chopper over third base by Gregor Blanco. Error by Carpenter on an infield dribbler. Sacrifice bunt from fellow hurler Ryan Vogelsong. Walk to Angel Pagan. Single from Marco Scutaro compounded by a Matt Holliday fielding error. Carnage everywhere.
By the time Carpenter escaped—on a hard-hit ball off the bat of Pablo Sandoval—San Francisco had built a four-run lead that ultimately proved insurmountable.
So, what went wrong?
In truth, not much—news that could either inspire optimism or pessimism depending on your attachment to Carpenter's postseason mystique.
Looking just at the bones of that one disastrous half-inning, it's hard to take issue with Carpenter's work. Blanco was the beneficiary of a super-charged hop. The two errors were a stroke of misfortune. And Marco Scutaro's three-run death blow came with two outs.
You could easily drum up a scenario where Carpenter advances to the fifth unscathed.
Bigger picture, did Carpenter show anything Monday night to suggest he's ailing?
That's the obvious question to ask of a man who resurfaced mere weeks ago after a possible career-ending injury.
But looking at the preliminary numbers on Carpenter's velocity and pitch outcomes, you'd be hard-pressed to find any tangible proof that he was under some sort of acute physical duress during Monday's contest.
First a look at velocity.
According to MLB.com's Gameday app, Carpenter's fastball/sinker sat between 90 and 93 mph from the first inning on. His cutter hovered around 87 mph and his curve danced in the 73 mph range.
All those numbers remained constant from first pitch to last and were near carbon copies of the velocities he posted during his shutout performance in Game 3 of the NLDS.
And those standards were in turn reflective of the range he set during his three regular-season starts at the tail end of 2012.
Nothing about Carpenter's stuff on Monday evening—either from stats or observations—suggested he was out of sorts.
Likewise, Carpenter's percentage of swings and misses has remained relatively stable throughout the playoffs. On Monday, Carpenter induced three swings and misses. Against the Nationals last week, he induced four.
Carpenter's swinging strike percentage against the Nationals (3.8 percent) was tied for his lowest ever in a playoff start, which helps explain why he fanned just two batters over 5.2 innings. Monday night was nearly as bad, and resulted in just one Carpenter punch-out.
There's some data in Carpenter's thin regular-season file to suggest that he's capable of better, particularly if you hone in on his last start.
But overall, the numbers say Carpenter isn't missing many bats and probably won't retire too many hitters via the strikeout this postseason.
That means we can expect plenty of balls in play off of St. Louis' postseason warrior. When those balls are finding gloves, Carpenter's above-average command combined with his ground-ball tendencies suggest he can be an effective rotation member.
And when they're not?
Well, you'll get a lot more nights like Monday.
Perhaps then, the Carpenter question comes down to a matter of faith.
If you're among those who think Carpenter can get by on declining stuff based purely on grit, guile and postseason precedent, then you've every reason to think he'll rise again this postseason.
If not, more pain is on the way.
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