It wasn't just the "W" next to his name as the winning pitcher for the first time since the 2006 World Series. It was how he earned that victory, with blistering stuff, exceptional command and the same mound presence and competitiveness that helped make him a Cy Young Award winner in '05. Carpenter had pitched in five Major League games since that Oct. 24 night, but not like he pitched Thursday afternoon.
Allowing one hit and one unearned run in seven innings, Carpenter looked like he'd never been gone as the Cardinals split a four-game series with the Pirates by way of a 2-1 victory.
"When you're really, really good, you pull off something like that," manager Tony La Russa marveled.
Carpenter took a no-hit bid into the seventh inning. He threw his fastball at 92-93 mph with heavy sink and good location. His cutter sat at 90 mph and likewise went just where Carpenter wanted it. He got swings-and-misses on his curveball. Carpenter is good enough to succeed with less than his best, but when he has his best, it's a wonder to witness.
And a fright to swing against.
"He was filthy, throwing what he wanted, where he wanted, when he wanted," Pirates second baseman Freddy Sanchez said. "And you've got to tip your hat. He was good. That was Carpenter right there for you. That's why he's one of the best in the game."
The last time Carpenter was the winning pitcher, Ronnie Belliard, David Eckstein and Scott Rolen made up three-fourths of the starting infield behind him. Braden Looper finished the game in relief. It's been a long time.
"It isn't hard to believe because we've lived with it for two years, knowing that," La Russa said. "And it's been a constant aggravation."
In the interim, Carpenter made two attempts to pitch. Both fell short. He appeared on Opening Night of the 2007 season, losing to the Mets in his only appearance of that year. Later in that week, he was shut down due to right elbow problems. He underwent an operation to remove bone spurs, then had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery at midseason.
Carpenter tried to return around midseason in 2008, and he made three starts. He pitched well, but still looked somewhat like a rehabbing hurler before coming down with a vexing nerve condition in the back of his throwing shoulder. He was shut down once again, and to top it off, had another elbow operation to move a nerve in the joint during the offseason.
At no time between the 2006 Fall Classic and '09 did Carpenter feel like he was really himself on the mound. On Thursday, there was no doubt.
"This was the first time in a long time that I've felt as good as I did," Carpenter said.
He breezed through the first two innings, re-introducing himself with brutal efficiency. He needed seven pitches for a 1-2-3 first inning, all on ground balls. The second brought two grounders and a strikeout, all on eight pitches. Even in the third, when he allowed a run, he did little wrong. A leadoff walk was the only sin.
That was followed by a popup and a bunt attempt during which Albert Pujols attempted to get the lead runner at second base. A throwing error by Pujols put men on the corners with one out. Nyjer Morgan then hit a hard grounder right at Pujols, who threw home -- but not in time to prevent the run.
It was merely a hiccup, and Carpenter retired the next 11 batters in a row -- with only one ball even being touched by an outfielder. A leadoff walk in the seventh was followed by another popup, but when the Cardinals couldn't turn a double play on Brandon Moss' grounder, Ramon Vazquez made them pay -- somewhat -- with a single to center.
It was the only hit of the game for the Buccos.
"I got ahead in the count and looked for the fastball," Vazquez said. "He's always going to give you one good pitch to hit, you just don't want to miss it."
At 92 pitches through seven innings, Carpenter was called back for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh. The Redbirds managed two runs in the frame, allowing Carpenter to be the winning pitcher, and Ryan Franklin and Dennys Reyes closed it out with two perfect innings of relief.
Nearly 900 days later, Carpenter was a winner again. More important, he was Chris Carpenter again.
"It was good," Carpenter said. "Obviously, the results were good. It was nice to get out there the first time and locate my fastball. I was locating my fastball and my cutter, moving the ball back and forth and keeping the ball down, getting some grounders. It was nice to get out there and do it again."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.