Carpenter back on track for Cards

Carpenter back on track going into NLCS

ST. LOUIS -- Chris Carpenter is nobody's vampire. But he will welcome nightfall for Wednesday's Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, when he starts for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Houston Astros at Busch Stadium.

The last time Carpenter pitched, in the opener of the NL Division Series, the heat from the St. Louis sun was all that stopped him. Carpenter threw six shutout innings, but had to leave the 8-5 victory over San Diego when cramps flared, not just in his hands as was announced.

"I think people misunderstood," Carpenter said. "I had cramps all over my body. It wasn't just about my hand. I had it in my hamstring, my shoulder, both hands, my calves, so I'm not concerned about that. I think it was just a day that was hot."

With the heat a non-issue -- nightfall is expected at 6:28 p.m. CT, more than a half-hour before FOX fires up its telecast -- Carpenter (21-5, 2.83 ERA) is looking to bring darkness to the Astros, the way he has so many times this season.

Even with a rough final outing against Houston (6 IP, 5 ER, 2 HR) on Sept. 28, Carpenter is 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA against the Astros in 2005. That includes two complete games -- a three-hit shutout on July 17 at Busch, in his first appearance after starting for the NL in the All-Star Game, and a 4-2 decision at Minute Maid Park on Sept. 3, during which he scattered eight hits while earning his 20th victory.

"It's a new game tomorrow night," Carpenter said. "That's the way I looked at it all year. I think that's why I was successful all year, because no matter what I did the last start, this next start was a different one.

"Everybody is going to be pumped up a little bit," Carpenter added. "I think that you've got to go out and relax and execute pitches the way I've done all year, and I'll be OK."

Carpenter has 31 strikeouts to five walks against the Astros, and they've come against table-setter Willy Taveras (four), veteran leader Craig Biggio (five) and heart-and-soul third baseman Morgan Ensberg (three).

The biggest challenge is Lance Berkman, who has two home runs and a double in 12 at-bats this year and three homers in 15 at-bats lifetime against Carpenter.

The way Carpenter finished the regular season, the question was whether the Cardinals could stay afloat as their ace sloshed through September with a 9.13 ERA and no wins in four starts, which included the rough no-decision against the Astros. Plus, Carpenter missed last year's playoffs with an arm ailment.

But the outing against San Diego quelled some of those fears. There were a couple of weak numbers -- his eight groundouts to five flyouts was still below his pre-September ground ball-fly ball ratio of plus-2.05, and he struck out just three.

Carpenter succeeded without his best stuff and spent at least part of the performance in pain, traits that transform a pitcher from a regular-season Cy Young Award candidate to the type of tough guy that baseball folks will tell stories about forever.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had an eye beyond the first game of a sweep of overmatched San Diego when he removed Carpenter.

"He came out the other day because, why push with an 8-0 lead?" La Russa said. "If it was 3-2 he would have gone out there. He could have pitched the seventh.

"Physically he feels fine. We could stretch him out if we have to," La Russa added. "But you've got to win eight games to get there. So you balance the game you're playing with what you've got left."

And just in case anyone's wondering, Cardinals head athletic trainer Barry Weinberg is not exactly sweating out of fear of another Carpenter cramping caper.

"If it turns 90 degrees tomorrow at game time, then I will have a concern," quipped Weinberg, who said Carpenter is taking no special precautions.

But that's not to say Carpenter is incapable of returning to his best. He will be pitching with seven days' rest, which could help any pitcher.

Playing second base gives Mark Grudzielanek a unique vantage point from which to appreciate Carpenter when he is sharp.

"If he gets through the first or second inning, he's kind of in and out," Grudzielanek said. "Looking back when he had problems, it's the walk here or there or in the first inning when he had problems, then he settles down. If he's settled down early, it's a good thing for us.

"When he's making his pitches, nobody's getting a good, good swing and they're not hitting the ball on the barrel," Grudzielanek said. "I mean, he's beating them in, he's throwing his cutters and curveballs, and throwing the first pitch for strikes. It's awesome."

Last year, the Cardinals needed seven trying games to beat the Astros, only to absorb a four-game sweep at the hands of Boston. But St. Louis faithful would argue that missing Carpenter hurt the Cardinals' chances, not only in the games he pitched, but how his presence would have set up Cardinals pitching throughout the postseason.

Carpenter welcomes the responsibility.

"[It was] frustrating last year, not being able to be a part of it," Carpenter said. "But you know, I'm excited about it, looking forward to tomorrow night and competing against a quality club."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.