It's not just the second series of an NL East road trip. It's not just a chance to rebound against an unsettled team, and work their way back into the division chase. It's not just four nights in July. This is the series that the Cardinals have been waiting for since April of last year.
Why? Chris Carpenter returns to the Cardinals' starting rotation Wednesday, after an absence of 270 games. The 2005 Cy Young Award winner has the chance to give a major lift to a team that has experienced a start to the second half every bit as frustrating as their first half was surprising.
The teams ahead of the Cardinals each acquired an ace pitcher in July, bulking up for the stretch run – Rich Harden (30 strikeouts dealt versus only two runs allowed in three starts) to the division-leading Cubs and C.C. Sabathia (four wins and three complete games in four starts) to the hotly-pursuing Brewers. And where the Cardinals have not been willing to pull themselves out of the race, it appears less likely that a major acquisition from outside the club will come before the trade deadline.
The team has expressed hopes since spring that a trio of rehabbing pitchers would provide the midseason jolt normally experienced by such deadline deals. However, Carpenter will have to succeed where Mark Mulder and, so far, Matt Clement have failed.
His chances may hinge on the difference between a shoulder and an elbow.
For pitchers, elbow injuries are season-ending; shoulder injuries, on the other hand, are often career-ending. One does not need to be acquainted with Mulder's gory surgical history to know this – one need merely look across the dugout at John Smoltz's patient record.
In many ways, Smoltz is the best-case scenario. The lion of the Braves' pitching staff succumbed to Tommy John surgery in 2000 – has it been that long? – the same procedure prescribed to the Cardinals' ace 15 months ago. Smoltz was 33 when the surgery was performed, the same age Carpenter is now. Coming back to the Braves at age 34, he was able to establish a new level of dominance as its closer. After four seasons of sterling relief, he pronounced himself fit and restless at age 38, and reeled off three consecutive seasons of 200 innings pitched as a starter, winning no worse than 14 games each year.
Post-surgery: 6.5 seasons, 154 saves and 53 wins against 34 losses, with ERA and WHIP as good or better than before.
The elbow would flare up from time to time, but no discomfort would keep Smoltz from taking the ball for long. That is, until a new and unfamiliar ache erupted behind the ball of his shoulder joint a season ago. He tried to rest it, with multiple trips to the DL. He tried to change his throwing routine this spring, as Mulder did in experimenting with his arm slot. As a last resort, he even tried to repeat his own best trick, assigning himself to the bullpen.
He lasted 12 pitches before calling it a season, if not yet surrendering to the idea of calling it a career.
The Braves' record stood at 30-28 on that day, a mere 3.5 games out of first. However, the pendulum has swung slowly but determinedly backwards against the team, which now stands six games under the horizon and in fourth place. With moves made just prior to this series, sitting slugging catcher Brian McCann with post-concussion symptoms, placing Tim Hudson and Chipper Jones on the DL, and churning its rotation further by optioning Jo-Jo Reyes, the Braves face a sure selling situation. However, GM Frank Wren has only one healthy man to move: Mark Teixeira.
A free-agent to be, and represented by Scott Boras, Teixeira will be looking for a significant raise above his current annual salary of $12.5 million. In short, Wren already knows that he will not be signing paychecks for the 27-year-old first baseman next year.
He also knows that by holding onto the Type-A free agent until the end of the season, he would reap two first-round draft picks in 2009 as compensation. Thus, the bar is set rather high in trade, even though the return is a two-month rental of a player, with no prospect of early contract negotiations or "home-town discounts."
This four-game series represents his last audition before the non-waiver deadline, and the Cardinals should be wary. As rumors have heated up, so has his bat: Teixeira is hitting .400 and slugging .767 over the past two weeks.
As the Cardinals count the few remaining days until Carpenter's long-awaited start, the question is whether the Braves' lone remaining threat in the lineup will be there to face him.
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