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09/30/09 2:00 AM ET

Carpenter is true pulse of Cards' rotation

When veteran is healthy, St. Louis is postseason staple

CINCINNATI -- Adam Wainwright looks more and more like the probable National League Cy Young Award winner. But it's not Wainwright who's on schedule to start Game 1 of the Cardinals' Division Series. It's his friend, teammate and mentor, Chris Carpenter.

Cardinals at a glance
2009 record: 91-71
2008 record: 86-76
NL Central champs

McClellan: Hometown boy
Cards: Shaking off walk-off
Ludwick: Dream fulfilled
Hawksworth: On way up
Ryan: Playing it cool
Pujols: Ready for fun stuff
Wainwright: Proud, durable
Holliday: Kids' play
Pujols: Triple Crown?
La Russa: 14th postseason
Carpenter: Heart of staff
Pujols: Eschewing rest
Holliday: A perfect fit
Carpenter: Ready to go
La Russa: Getting proactive
Wainwright: Apt pupil
Pujols: His place in history?
Pujols: The evolution
Holliday: Offensive spark
La Russa: Controls fate
Pujols: MVP No. 3?
Wainwright: Mr. Consistent
La Russa: Winning cures all
Carpenter: A go Game 1
Holliday: Big impact
Wainwright: Cy in cards?

It's Carpenter who leads the National League in ERA. It's Carpenter who is tied for the fewest homers allowed of any NL pitcher who qualifies for the ERA crown. Carpenter might well be the Cy Young favorite if he hadn't missed five weeks earlier in the season with a strained oblique muscle. So the choice of the veteran to start Game 1 is at least partly performance based. But it's also about something more.

Within the Cardinals' rotation, Carpenter is the man. He's the pace-setter, the leader, the pitcher who sets the example for his teammates. He's a former Cy Young winner himself and was superb in the 2005 and '06 postseasons. It's been widely repeated, but it's far from a total coincidence: Carpenter has had four mostly or entirely healthy seasons with the Cardinals, and they've made the postseason every time. He's missed most or all of the year three times, and they've missed the postseason every time.

"I think there are stories all over," manager Tony La Russa said. "But no doubt, we missed the postseason two years and I don't think it's any coincidence that Carp didn't pitch for two years. He's been a giant this year."

Before the 2009 season started, the Cardinals were widely picked to finish second or third in the NL Central, and one reason was uncertainty in the pitching staff. In particular, there was uncertainty regarding Carpenter, who followed elbow troubles with a nerve issue in the back of his right shoulder at the end of last year.

But he took the ball from day one, and though he had a disabled-list stint, it wasn't arm-related. He's stayed mostly healthy and gotten stronger, and every time he pitches, the Cards like their chances.

"His command, getting ahead and trusting his stuff, nobody trusts his stuff [like that]," infielder Brendan Ryan said recently. "Although, geez, if anybody else had that stuff, I'm sure they would, too."

The Cardinals love Wainwright, and they were delighted that he was the man on the mound for the division clincher. The infielders delight in pitching behind ground-ball machine Joel Pineiro. John Smoltz is one of the best-regarded teammates in the game. But Carpenter is the face of the rotation, and more than any other pitcher, as he goes, so go the Cardinals.

"There were questions about what we would get from him," La Russa said. "He did miss time, but it turned out it was nothing to do with his throwing. And we hung in there while he was gone. But he's been a giant. He's been great all year."

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