Chris Carpenter sauntered through a concrete tunnel in Nationals Park, a cup of Gatorade in his right hand and an easy grin on his face.
After 5 2/3 scoreless innings Wednesday afternoon, the 37-year-old's day was done. His St. Louis Cardinals had clinched a 2-1 lead in the National League Division Series, and Carpenter had won his first game since Game 7 of the 2011 World Series.
The former Cy Young winner threw 106 pitches, struck out two and even collected a pair of hits at the plate in the Cardinals' 8-0 demolition of the Nationals. The most impressive part of his performance, however, may be that he was able to pitch at all.
Four months ago, Carpenter abandoned all hope of pitching in the 2012 season. For at least three years he had battled weakness and temporary numbness in his right forearm, the result of pressured nerves in his arms and neck.
Carpenter started the season on the disabled list, and by mid-June the discomfort became too much to handle. He had what the Cardinals termed season-ending surgery July 19, when doctors freed up his affected nerves and also removed a rib.
After the surgery, Carpenter then believed he could come back and pitch this season, but he also knew that might be an unrealistic goal. At worst, he figured the timing of the procedure would give him more time to prepare for spring training in February.
"It's hard to believe not too long ago that they took a rib from this guy," said St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, who was also Carpenter's catcher when the two were on the Toronto Blue Jays in 1999. "I applaud our medical staff, but I applaud Chris Carpenter for what he's been able to do. And to go out and not just go out there, but to compete like Chris Carpenter always has, and then the stuff to go along with it. [It's] just beyond words the amount of respect that everybody in that clubhouse has for him."
After making only three starts this year prior to Wednesday, Carpenter finally returned to his familiar level of dominance. He bent without breaking for most of the game, allowing Nationals batters to consistently reach base but getting key outs to strand them there. He also improved to 10-2 with a career 2.97 ERA in postseason play.
"He's the guy that pitches in big games. He made pitches when he needed to," Ryan Zimmerman said. "It's easy to say we need to get big hits, but when you have a guy like that making pitches, he's not just letting you get hits."
Added Nationals manager Davey Johnson: "I didn't think Carpenter had his best stuff, but he didn't give in to anybody."
Carpenter's strong outing ensured that the Cardinals will get to play at least one game longer. The Nationals will face a must-win situation with Ross Detwiler on the mound Thursday afternoon, while St. Louis needs to win only one of the next two games to advance to the National League Championship Series for the second straight season.
If and when the Cardinals advance, they can look to Carpenter as a big reason why.
"I don't think anybody has to say any more than I've already said about Chris Carpenter," Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday said. "Every guy on this team has watched him work his way back and watches him in between starts. He's a stud. He's just a guy you want out there and a guy you enjoy being teammates with. When I'm done playing, one day I'll get to say I was teammates with Chris Carpenter. I'll be proud of that."
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