The difference in aces is this: One has been pitching like a postseason ace, the other has not.
If the difference between Games 3 and 4 of this Series taught us anything, it is that each game can be a separate entity, immune to judgment based on previous performances. But for the time-honored practice of looking at numbers, history, trends as guides in these matters, the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter would seem to have an edge over the Rangers' C.J. Wilson. The two face each other in Game 5 of the Series, with the first pitch scheduled for 7:05 p.m. CT on Monday.
Carpenter is 8-2 with a 3.10 ERA over 13 postseason starts. If he had done nothing else, his brilliant performance in the deciding Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Phillies, a 1-0 victory, would fully recommend him for making such an important start. But he has done quite a bit more. In Game 1 of this Series, matched against Wilson, Carpenter was the winning pitcher, while Wilson took the loss. The difference in their performances was not overwhelming in a 3-2 game, but the verdict was clear.
"If you want to choose somebody from the St. Louis Cardinals to pitch [Game 5], it's Chris," manager Tony La Russa said Sunday night. "I mean, there isn't anything [to Carpenter] about pitching on the road in a hostile environment. I think he actually likes it, pitches better. His problem is going to be good hitters, and he'll have to pitch effectively.
"But we love playing behind him, because we know he's going to compete as hard as he can. He's got a lot to compete with."
Wilson, in just his second year as a full-time starter, filled the roll of an ace in Texas, going 16-7 with a 2.97 ERA in the regular season. But in the 2011 postseason, over four starts, Wilson is 0-3 with a 7.17 ERA.
"You know, I'm somewhat of an optimist, but at the same time being a realist, it obviously hasn't gone as well as I would have liked," Wilson said of his 2011 postseason work. "I would have liked to have won every game and thrown a shutout every time, because it would have made it easier on everyone else.
"But there's been a lot of good that's come of it in terms of personal development. I feel like I've learned a little bit more, mechanically, because at this point in the season, I've thrown 250 innings, or something like that, so it's the refinement that you get as a starting pitcher, from continually going out there and throwing, I feel like it's helping me grow, so that next year I can be better than I was this year."
The Rangers still have complete faith in the left-hander, based on his success in the regular season.
"For us, he responded as the No. 1 guy," Rangers manager Ron Washington said Sunday. "He's taken on every best pitcher that the American League had to offer, and I think he's beat every one of them. You know, [Monday night] he'll have Carpenter again. And the key to it is, as I always say about any of my pitchers out there on the mound, just keep us in the ballgame. Keep us in the ballgame. We can strike. That's all I expect out of C.J., and he's certainly been the one guy that's been giving us that opportunity.
"Yes, he's struggled in the postseason this year, but we still feel that the next time he takes the ball is the time we'll see the C.J. that we know we have."
Carpenter has argued, with considerable conviction, that performance in the postseason should not define a pitcher's career by itself. He is in a good situation to make that argument since his career includes a .610 winning percentage, a brilliant 21-5, NL Cy Young Award-winning season in 2005, and a league-leading 2.24 ERA in 2009.
"I think what defines who you are is, one, the consistency you put in day in and day out as a professional, and two, how you go about your business on and off the field," Carpenter said Sunday. "That defines who you are. Postseason is just at a different level. I think the guys that are successful might be a little more relaxed and able to deal with the distractions a little better, because there are a lot of them. But if you scuffle in the postseason, it shouldn't define what type of player you are. That could just be that series. There's times throughout the year where guys go through slumps or don't pitch well. So yeah, I don't think it should define it at all."
All of that makes perfect sense and should not be seriously disputed. But with this Series tied, 2-2, the pivotal nature of Game 5 cannot be overstated. Whatever else Carpenter and Wilson have done this year, this game, this start, might be the lasting image that the two of them leave in the minds of the baseball public for 2011.
Or as Wilson put it with a smile:
"That's what the commercial says, that legends are born in the postseason, or whatever."
Even if legends are born elsewhere, a great big Game 5 World Series start is an ideal place to do a little tune-up work on them.