MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Carp not in ace form Cards have come to expect

Castrovince: Carp doesn't have his ace form

SAN FRANCISCO -- The head and the heart are often at odds this time of year. The postseason, after all, is not the time for practicality. It's time to show a little faith, there's magic in the night.

So when reality intervenes, as it did for the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday night at AT&T Park, it pulls us out of the fairy tale for a moment and reminds us -- cruelly, in this case, if you're a Cards fan -- that these are human beings on that field. Their fallibility is a factor.

Chris Carpenter might be a feel-good story, might be rightly lauded as a warrior for the way he's quickly come back from what was a risky and supposedly season-ending surgery to address a long-term neurological disorder.

And this is fine and expected, because we tend to fall for the feel good, tend to crave the comeback.

NLCS

But the unfortunate truth, where the Cardinals are concerned, is that Carpenter, in his present state, is unfit to be the ace the Cards have come to expect him to be this time of year. And in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series -- a game that felt, oddly, like a must win for St. Louis, even though it came in with a 3-2 advantage in the best-of-seven set -- Carpenter proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he is not that guy.

Not here. Not now. Not yet. And if we're being honest, maybe not at all in 2012.

"I'm not giving my team a good chance to win," Carpenter said afterward, and this was irrefutable.

Two innings into his sixth start of the season, the Cardinals trailed the Giants, 5-0. Under ordinary circumstances, the sixth start would come sometime in late April/early May. But these are not ordinary circumstances, by any stretch of the imagination. This was the Cards' last chance to make the most of the series advantage they accrued, lest they be subjected to a Game 7 scenario in an unfriendly environment with Matt Cain on the mound and the ignominy of a lost lead on the table.

Less than 100 days ago, Carpenter was on the surgeon's table. Through a cut above his collarbone, his top rib was removed, as were two muscles subjected to scar tissue. Carpenter had put in the prehab and vowed to do the rehab it would take to recover quickly. But only he could have imagined he'd be back this quickly, pitching the most meaningful games of the year without the benefit of spring conditioning or in-season upkeep.

"There's a reason you go through Spring Training," said Lance Berkman, currently working through his own injury issue, "and there's a reason, over the course of playing 162 games, you're tuning up, tuning up, tuning up, tuning up, until, by the time you get to this stage, your nervous system is at its peak for the year.

"Not having had that, it's tough. It's tough to come in and compete against guys who are at the very top of what they're trying to do when you're playing catchup."

Carpenter might have looked caught up when he turned in two quality starts at season's end. And his 5 2/3 shutout innings against the Nationals in Game 3 in the NL Division Series were vintage for a man billed as one of the best postseason pitchers of his generation.

But the stakes have risen here in the LCS round, and Carpenter, in each of his outings against a pesky Giants club, has looked like a guy of whom too much is being asked.

Basically, he's looked like a guy who had season-ending surgery three months ago.

On Sunday night, it was evident early. Carpenter walked Marco Scutaro, the second batter he faced, on five pitches. He had no command of his sinker, and this became a particular problem when Pablo Sandoval smacked one to center for a double to put two runners in scoring position. The Giants capitalized when David Freese bobbled a Buster Posey ground ball, and Scutaro streaked home.

Carpenter got out of that jam without further damage, but his outing really unraveled in the four-run second. Again, his inability to locate the fastball was obvious. Brandon Belt tripled to open the inning, and Carpenter's decision to intentionally walk Brandon Crawford with one out came back to bite him when Ryan Vogelsong slash-bunted a ball to the left side of the infield and Pete Kozma misplayed it to let another run home. After Carpenter struck out Angel Pagan, it looked like he might again escape without major damage. But he hung another sinker to Scutaro, and Scutaro's line-drive double to left brought both runners home. Sandoval then singled to make it 5-0.

That was basically the ballgame. Mike Matheny stuck with Carpenter after that second inning and, to his credit, Carpenter gutted his way through the third and fourth. But the Cardinals' offense -- operating on this night sans Matt Holliday and his stiff back -- has disappeared, and this becomes an insurmountable issue when your rotation shows cracks in its foundation.

Carpenter is, unquestionably, part of the foundation of this Cards team. But watching him in this LCS, you can't shake the feeling that all this is too much, too soon for a 37-year-old coming off major in-season surgery.

It is absolutely unsurprising that Carpenter refutes that notion.

"I wouldn't go out there if it was a factor," he said. "I wouldn't take the ball. There is no excuse. If I feel like I don't have the ability to go out and get outs, I'm smart enough, old enough, been around long enough to stand up and tell my manager that I'm not good enough to be out there right now."

That's why we like the man they call Carp. That's why his comeback story tugs at the heart.

But the head says the Cardinals needed an ace out there to stop this series dead in its tracks. Game 7 presents the dangerous possibility that it might go off the rails.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.