PITTSBURGH -- The "season-ending" surgery took place six weeks ago. That's how it was billed, remember? Season. Ending. We had seen the last of Chris Carpenter in 2012 before ever seeing the first of Chris Carpenter in 2012. Yet this is Chris Carpenter we're talking about. Remember the Wild Card clincher in last year's regular season finale? Remember Game 5 against the Phillies? Or Game 7 against the Rangers? Chris Carpenter wants it just a little more than the other guy, and so "season-ending," in this instance, was not necessarily in his vocabulary.
Of course, this is a different kind of competition Carpenter is waging here in these waning weeks of the 2012 season. For this is a competition with the body, not the bats. But it's a competition Carpenter intends to win, even if the victory is as seemingly small as taking a few turns out of the bullpen. "When you have injuries," he said, "you find a way to get through them, you find a way to work every day and make it a competition within yourself to make sure that if you can't compete on the field you do what you need to do to get back. I don't take a day off. I make sure I do what I have to do to get back as fast as I can." The 37-year-old Carpenter could be checking in at Busch Stadium for some morning rehab, then heading home to his kids, all the while collecting his $8.5 million salary. Instead -- and not for lack of love for his kids, mind you -- Carpenter is on the road with the Cardinals, tossing bullpen sessions just a month and a half removed from surgery to address a nerve condition in his right shoulder. He knows a 2012 return is not guaranteed. But Carpenter feels obligated to provide some answers -- for both himself and the Cards, who have him under contract for $12.5 million in 2013 -- as to what can be expected from him next spring. Where does this lead? Nobody with the Cardinals wants to say for certain. The timeline of Carpenter's condition has been littered with enough surprises and setbacks this season that there's no sense overselling the situation. Carpenter threw a 40-pitch bullpen session Tuesday. He's expected to throw another bullpen session on Friday. If Carpenter's body keeps cooperating, he'll keep increasing his workload, and a mid- to late-September return is not at all out of the question. The mere possibility of Carpenter pitching for the Cards this season, in any capacity, is a testament to the veteran's work ethic and character. "I don't think people understand how hard he worked before the surgery happened," said teammate Skip Schumaker. "You're talking about a 37-year-old guy who has done everything he can for this organization, for his teammates, to show he can make it back. He could have just mailed it in and waited for next year. But that's just not him. If there's any guy to look up to for Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn and these other guys, it's Chris Carpenter." The Cardinals have gotten by pretty well without Carpenter in the rotation. Dating back to the admittedly arbitrary date of June 4, they have the best starters' ERA in baseball. Kyle Lohse has had a dominant free-agent walk year, and Adam Wainwright appears to have found his old form in the second half after the expected post-Tommy John bumps in the road in the first. Still, you can't help but wonder what a healthy Carpenter might have meant to the won-loss ledger. You can't help but think that if he had this necessary surgery in Spring Training, when the nerve issues prompted a shutdown, he would have been back in time to help offset some of the ups and downs, such as Lance Lynn's second-half struggles. "It sure would have been nice to have him every fifth day," Schumaker said. But Carpenter's condition has been difficult to read all year. He had dealt with numbness in his arm, shoulder, neck and face on and off since 2008. But it wasn't until midseason, when continued attempts to ramp up his workload led to a series of setbacks, that this particular surgical procedure was put on the table. The procedure involved removing the first rib and connecting muscles and cleaning out scar tissue. It was performed July 19. The stated recovery period was three to six months. For most, that equates to season ending. "He's different than others," manager Mike Matheny said. And Carpenter could be a difference-maker for the Cardinals, even if only in a limited role. Carpenter might not have enough time to build up tolerance for starting duties. That remains to be seen. But a Cards club that has struggled in middle relief -- 27.7 percent of St. Louis' runs allowed this season have come in the sixth and seventh innings -- could stand to benefit from his presence out of the 'pen. "It's a huge arm to have," Schumaker said. "His leadership is unlike anybody else's that I've played with. To have him on the field and off the field, it would be a huge lift for us." The Cardinals are eight games back in the NL Central, but they're in current possession of a Wild Card spot. Every game, every inning, every out counts. Getting a few of those outs from the arm of their ace would be a boost, and Carpenter, true to form, wants to provide it. "This is what it's all about," he said. "You get to this point of year and, no matter what's happened all year, you've got a shot to play in October." Carpenter might have that shot. His season has not ended yet.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.