CHICAGO -- In a season in which they've defied all expectations by somehow remaining in contention, the St. Louis Cardinals may finally be reaching a crossroads.
Underscoring the fragility of St. Louis' situation is right-hander Chris Carpenter, who is trying to come back in rather rapid time from major elbow surgery.
Carpenter will try to give the Cardinals a much-needed win over the first-place Cubs when he starts ESPN's Sunday Night Game of the Week at Wrigley Field. It will be Carpenter's third start since returning from the disabled list.
So far, the early returns have been positive for Carpenter, who had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in July 2007 and went 473 days between starts. Carpenter pitched five efficient shutout innings against the Dodgers Tuesday in a start cut short by a rain delay. The Cardinals, however, remain cautious about Carpenter, who is trying to return from a year and half of inactivity and pitch effectively in the heat of a pennant race.
"I'd think we'd try to keep him at around 80 pitches this time," said Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. "We'll see how it goes in terms of how stressful his innings might be.
"He had pretty good command of his pitches in his last time out -- and that certainly was encouraging. His velocity is getting there, so is his stuff. But we're still being a little careful because it's only a year removed from surgery."
For Carpenter, the 2005 National League Cy Young Award winner, this is the second time in his Cardinals career he's had to work his way back from major surgery. He missed all of 2002 and 2003 with a shoulder injury, only to return as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Carpenter went 51-18 for St. Louis from 2004 to 2006, with the Cardinals nearly 40 games over .500 (65-28) in his 93 starts.
But he went down after one start in April 2007 with elbow problems and wouldn't return until July 30 of this season.
This second long interruption of his career was obviously frustrating. "It's tough to have to go through that long rehabilitation process and not be able to compete for month after month," Carpenter said.
"It's something I've had to go through twice now. But I've never been someone who starts asking 'Why me?' or anything like that. As tough as it might be, you have to accept that injuries are part of the game sometimes, and you have to do what you have to do to come back."
So far, Carpenter is pleased with the progress he's made his in his two starts since returning from the DL.
"The doctors and the coaches all tell me that the command of my pitches is the last thing to come back after a long layoff," Carpenter said. "So I'm pretty pleased with that aspect of things so far.
"I'm just trying to give my team a chance to win every game I start, whether it's five innings or whatever. That's really all I can do at this point, to try to stay strong and give my team the best innings I can pitch. The good thing is that there's two months left to the season, a lot of time for us to come back and get to the playoffs. And for myself, the goal will continue to be to keep getting stronger and hopefully get back to being the pitcher I was three years ago."
The Cardinals did not make any moves at the trading deadline, and the club's management likes to say that getting Carpenter back in the rotation is like making a major deal. The same thing could soon happen in their bullpen when they get Adam Wainwright back from the DL.
Wainwright, who's recovering from a finger sprain, made his first rehab appearance in the minors on Friday night, a rocky outing in which he allowed three runs and four hits in two-thirds of an inning for Triple-A Memphis. Such results are obviously meaningless in the big picture, but Wainwright's lack of effectiveness likely indicates he will need at least two or three more minor league outings before being added to the Cardinals' staff.
When Wainwright does return, it will likely be in the bullpen, where St. Louis has been struggling all season to the tune of a major league-worst 27 blown save opportunities. Wainwright stepped into the closer's role late in the 2006 season for the injured Jason Isringhausen and was a major factor in St. Louis going all the way to a World Series title.
Right now, that seems like a long shot for St. Louis. The Cardinals, however, do feel better about their chances having Carpenter, their long-time ace, back in the rotation and seemingly getting stronger all the time as he faces a Cubs lineup that leads the National League in runs scored.
Peter Pascarelli is the lead researcher for "Sunday Night Baseball." He will preview each Sunday night game all season long. He is also co-host of the Baseball Today podcast, which runs Monday through Friday on ESPN.com.