"That was enough," La Russa said. "If he goes out for the fifth, you're really pushing it. He gave me a look that I haven't missed. I told him I haven't really missed that look of, 'You're taking me out?'"
Forgive Carpenter. He was just having too much fun for it to be over. After 16 months of rehabilitating his injured elbow, and 12 months of recovery from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, the pitcher's mound at Turner Field was the only place he wanted to be.
"It's fun to get out there and compete at this level," he said. "This is what it's all about. I worked hard to get here and I was excited about this game. When I go home tonight, I'm going to be excited about what I did."
Carpenter lacked at times for sharpness and command, but his velocity and stuff were plenty good. He consistently pitched at 91-93 mph on his fastball, with his cut fastball checking in at 86-88 mph. His curveball stayed up too much, but he compensated for that with outstanding action on his changeup.
The final line was one run on five hits, with two strikeouts and two walks. Of Carpenter's 67 pitches, 36 went for strikes.
"My stuff was there," he said. "But I'm used to being able to locate and the ball is going where I want it to go. When you're trying to throw the ball down and away, and the ball is middle-in, that makes it a little bit more difficult to pitch. But I did everything I could to give our team a chance and get out of the situations we were in."
As for his team, it was thrilled to have its ace back. Though the term is often overused, Carpenter is unquestionably a leader in the Cardinals' clubhouse, along with being one of the finest pitchers in baseball. His return had been on the minds of the Redbirds since the day he first went down, early last season.
"That's the shot in the arm that we needed," said outfielder Skip Schumaker. "To see him throwing 91-93, with his cutter, that's a huge thing for us. It was a lot of fun to watch and play behind. Knowing that we have him now is huge for us."
Right-hander Adam Wainwright, a Carpenter protégé, watched with particular interest. The Cards hope that Wainwright's return from a finger sprain follows soon after Carpenter's reinstallation in the rotation.
"It's exciting that he's back," Wainwright said. "It's exciting that we won the game he started, to get him a positive feel for it. And it's exciting to see him throwing 93 miles an hour."
For the first two innings, Carpenter missed his spots a good bit, but missed down more often than up. He allowed a walk in the first and three singles in the second, but minimized the damage. In the third, Carpenter's command appeared even rockier than in the first two frames, and he needed 26 pitches to escape the inning.
Finally, in the fourth, he locked in. He threw 11 pitches, seven of them strikes, got a pair of strikeouts and a groundout, and generally felt he was headed in the right direction. Then he was out of the game.
"In the fourth, I went out there and I was able to get the ball going downhill," he said. "I was getting the ball down, and my cutter was better and my breaking ball was better. My location on both sides of the plate with my fastball was better. But by that time, I'm out of pitches. Hopefully, next time out, I can find a way to start that from the first."
Carpenter will pitch again in six days, on Tuesday in the Cardinals' series opener against the Dodgers. He'll likely be on a higher pitch count in that game, and he'll be expecting to find his best command a little quicker. Either way, he'll again be happy to be on the mound, and his team will be happy to have him there.
"It was fun," he said. "It was something I've been looking forward to for a long time. It was just fun to get back out there and compete at this level."