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Carpenter makes triumphant return

Carpenter makes triumphant return

ST. LOUIS -- Never likely to be mistaken for "Nuke" LaLoosh, Chris Carpenter nonetheless channeled the character from "Bull Durham" on Wednesday night. With his first pitch, Carpenter announced his presence with authority.

Making his first game appearance of any kind, at any level, since April 14, Carpenter made a statement from the start. His 94-mph fastball, down and away, to Alfonso Soriano set the tone for an outstanding return to action. Carpenter pitched five shutout innings, allowing three hits and two walks with four strikeouts, as the Cardinals beat the Cubs, 2-1.

The final score, though, was almost incidental. The big news was Carpenter, who looked like he hadn't missed a start, never mind five-plus weeks, due to a strained left oblique muscle. His velocity was excellent, his command solid if not superb. Carpenter pitched at 92-94, touching 95, with his fastball, and his cut fastball even registered as high as 90 mph. He got three strikeouts with his curveball and another with his cutter.

It looked a lot like Chris Carpenter.

"It's not surprising," said manager Tony La Russa. "It's just amazing and impressive to be able to shut that club out for five innings."

Between Carpenter on Wednesday and Joel Pineiro on Tuesday night, the Cardinals have discovered the cure for a scuffling offense: just don't allow any runs. It was very nearly the second straight shutout for St. Louis, which saw an 18-inning shutout streak snapped in the ninth.

"I was able to make some pitches when I had to when they had some runners in scoring position, but also I was out there getting ahead, and my curveball and cutter were good," Carpenter said.

For all that Carpenter has been through -- multiple arm surgeries, two occurrences of an unusual nerve ailment and most recently the oblique strain -- it's remarkable how he consistently comes back strong. He has yet to allow an earned run in 2009.

"I'm just trying to go out and stay healthy," he said. "I know if I'm healthy that my ability has a chance to come out, and I have a chance to give my team a chance to win. Unfortunately I haven't been healthy a whole lot, and that's all that concerns me."

The St. Louis bullpen even got in on the act, pitching four excellent innings, though it got far too interesting at the end. Kyle McClellan went two frames without a hit or a walk, and Jason Motte and Dennys Reyes tag-teamed the eighth without a serious hitch.

Ryan Franklin chalked up another save, making it 10 in 11 chances, but not without some drama. Two singles and a walk added up to the first Cubs run of the series before the St. Louis closer struck out Reed Johnson to end the game. The Cardinals' bullpen hasn't been charged with a loss in more than three weeks, dating back to April 28 in Atlanta.

"We figured tonight that we were going to have to pick up three or four innings because we knew [Carpenter] was on a short leash," Franklin said. "We also knew that whenever he came out, there was a good chance we were either going to be winning or tied. We just have that much confidence in the guy. He brings that much more competitiveness to our team."

The Cardinals needed that kind of performance from their pitchers, because Ryan Dempster and Carlos Marmol effectively kept the Redbirds' offense quiet. St. Louis has scored 19 runs in the past seven games.

A pair of leadoff doubles led to the only Cardinals tallies. Each time, La Russa called for a sacrifice with the next batter, and each time the one-run strategy did in fact yield one and only one run. Chris Duncan singled through a drawn-in infield in the fourth. In the seventh, Duncan doubled, took third on a bunt and scored on Khalil Greene's pinch-hit sacrifice fly.

"It was a pitchers' duel, two good pitchers like that," said Duncan. "Fortunately we got up ahead early and wound up winning."

The Cardinals moved back into second place in the National League Central and now trail the division-leading Brewers by two games. St. Louis is 5-3 against Chicago on the year. And the coming weeks and months look a lot brighter now that they once again have their ace back.

"Carpenter, that's the nastiest pitcher I've faced all year," said Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee.

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

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