At this point in his career, Chris Carpenter has very little to prove. Yet, Fox Sports analysts continued to declare that the Texas Rangers would have little trouble facing a pitcher they were seeing for the third time in less than ten days. If Carpenter was just any other pitcher, they might be right. But he is not, and Game Seven of the 2011 World Series is lasting evidence should the question ever come up in the future.
Since the non-waiver trade deadline, Cardinals fans have been hanging on to the stories of the miraculous comeback of the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals, as if it would somehow history would repeat itself. Now that it is all over, we can look back and realize that is not what happened. Instead, a new history and associated folklore has been written and will be passed on to future generations. The ’64 team only had one test following their amazing win over the Philadelphia Phillies. They only faced a single elimination game in the postseason, and that was Game Seven of the World Series. In fact, they were only down once in the postseason, following Game Three. After Ken Boyer’s grand slam in Game Four, it was the Cardinals who were in the driver’s seat and the Yankees facing elimination.
The 2011 Cardinals faced four such games, five if you include the season finale, and were victorious in all. Three of the four were played at home, but it should not be forgotten that Game Five of the divisional series was took place in one of the most hostile ballparks in the major leagues. Similarly, it should not be forgotten that Chris Carpenter got the start in two of those games, and was just as important to those wins as the Cardinals bats and gloves.
August and September
The legend of Bob Gibson may have been born in August 1964, when he picked up the team on his shoulders and pitched them into a World Series. Coming back on one day rest after pitching an 8 inning 1-0 loss to throw four innings of relief seems unthinkable they way the game is played today, but he did. It was what he did on the national stage, in Games Two, Five and Seven of the World Series that transformed him from a good pitcher into a legend.
At age 28, the hard throwing Gibson had been working on short rest for the last month of the season. Unlike the starters of today, he was throwing complete games through most of that stretch. From August 6 through the end of the season, Gibson would compile an 11-3 record, throwing 118 2/3 innings with an ERA of 2.20. If not for a pair of double headers where the bullpen had been stretched, his ERA might have been half of that tiny number.
Over that same period in the Cardinals amazing finish in 2011, Chris Carpenter posted a 5-1 record, 80 2/3 innings pitched and a similarly stingy ERA of 2.68. Unfortunately, the bullpen did not hold up their end, and the Cardinals lost 4 games that should have been additional Carpenter wins. Like Gibson, Carpenter saved his best for the last game of the season, a complete game two hit shutout on the road in Houston. Little did we know, Carpenter would eclipse that with a breathtaking 1-0 shutout in Game Five of the NLDS, also on the road.
Legends are born in October
Gibson had pitched well in Game Two of the ’64 World Series. Rookie, Mel Stottlemyre pitched just a bit better, and that was the difference. When Gibson turned the game over to the bullpen in the ninth inning, the Cardinals were only down by a single run, 4-3. The game was still winnable.
Game Five was one for the ages and featured one of the greatest defensive plays in World Series history. With one out in the ninth inning, Joe Pepitone hits a slow roller down the third base line. Gibson, who falls hard to the first base side, gets to the ball and while falling down, fires a strike to Bill White at first base, beating Pepitone by inches. This play can be seen in the Cardinals World Series Highlights of the 1960s documentary, and you will have to watch it several times to believe it really happened. If Gibson does not make that play, the Yankees win the World Series in Game Six.
Zoom forward to 2011, and Game One of the World Series. With one out in the first inning, Elvis Andrus hits a ground ball to second base. Albert Pujols ranges far off first base to make the play, but makes a bad throw to Chris Carpenter, covering first base. Carpenter leaps, makes the catch and slides head first into the base to make the play. That was an important play because the Rangers had come out swinging, but had nothing to show for their efforts. The Cardinals win that game, but if Carpenter does not make that play, things could have been much different.
For Game Seven of the 1964 World Series, Bob Gibson was working on very short rest, just two days after that thrilling ten inning game in New York. He wasn’t sharp, and struggled early. In a few cases, it was the strength of a 28 year old arm that got him out of trouble, but more often it was his cunning, picking his spots to get outs and not letting the others beat him. That was most evident in the second inning, when the Yankees loaded the bases, threatening to blow the game open early. Gibson relaxed and struck out Mel Stottlemyre with ease, throwing him a curveball that nobody was going to hit.
The same thing happened to Chris Carpenter in 2011. Like Gibson, he wasn’t sharp early. Perhaps a bit too much adrenaline and certainly too many fast pitches, the Rangers got all over Carpenter in the first inning. But for all of the hits and excitement, only two runs crossed the plate. Just two. Those two would be the only runs they scored in the game. Carpenter picked his battles wisely, retiring the batters he wanted while not letting others do any damage. That is the difference between pitching and throwing, and Carpenter put on a six inning clinic.
As the game went on, Carpenter started working in more breaking balls and the Rangers had to be more selective with their swings. That worked to Carpenter’s advantage, and the Rangers never threatened after the first two innings. In the era of specialty relief, he turned the game over to his bullpen after facing one batter in the seventh inning. Nine Rangers hitters came up to the plate, nine outs were recorded. This time, the bullpen matched Carpenters performance. Arthur Rhodes, Octavio Dotel, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte were perfect for three innings.
Bob Gibson would pitch three Game Seven’s in his career. In 1964, on two days rest, the Cardinals bats made him a winner. In 1967, Gibson pitched one of the finest games of his career and nearly single-handedly won the game (he hit a solo home run). He was rewarded with the World Series MVP for both of these efforts. In 1968, he pitched another great game, but a key hit or defensive misplay (depending on your point of view) cost him his third Game Seven win.
Chris Carpenter hasn’t had nearly as many World Series moments in his Cardinals career, but he has been every bit as dominating in his opportunities. If he had been able to pitch in 2004, that World Series might have turned out differently. In his best season, 2005, the Cardinals failed to get past the Houston Astros, so we are left to imagine what might have happened, if. Fortunately, we have 2011 to satisfy our remaining curiosities, and Carpenter was as good as Gibson had been in those three World Series.
Facing elimination in the regular season, Chris Carpenter pitches the game of his life, a two hit shutout in Houston. Facing elimination in the NLDS, Chris Carpenter pitches the game of his life, a three hit 1-0 shutout in Philadelphia. And once again, facing elimination and on short rest, Chris Carpenter pitches his team to their 11th World Series Championship. I can’t think of a better conclusion for one of the most exciting seasons in Cardinals history.