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03/16/11 5:58 PM ET

Carpenter's return calms skittish Cardinals

Right-hander proves hamstring is healthy during 57-pitch outing

LAKELAND, Fla. -- By normal standards, Chris Carpenter's outing against the Tigers on Wednesday wasn't much to write home about. If you've been paying attention to Spring Training for the Cardinals this year, though, you know that nothing about this team, this spring, is normal.

Going by what Carpenter and the club hoped to see on Wednesday, the right-hander's second start of camp was a rousing success. He threw 57 pitches over four-plus innings and came out feeling good. Perhaps more important, he had to make several plays on defense, testing out his no-longer-strained left hamstring in ways that really can't be simulated in practice.

Carpenter had to cover first base on a grounder. He had to back up home plate. He even made a nifty play on a little dribbler to the third-base side of the mound, throwing out John Murrian on a potential infield hit. For Carpenter's leg to hold up not only to pitching but also the defensive challenges meant that Wednesday was a good day, indeed.

"I was happy with it," Carpenter said. "I got stronger as the game went on, and my hamstring felt good. Obviously, I had to make some plays, so I was fine with that. I felt like my stuff got better as it went on. I felt more comfortable up there. So I'm looking forward to the next one."

The Cardinals' scheduled Opening Day starter, Carpenter injured himself in the second game of the spring. The injury came the day after co-ace Adam Wainwright underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, an event that will color just about everything that happens on the Cards' pitching staff for the rest of the season.

From the moment he suffered the injury, Carpenter never really doubted that he'd recover in a more or less routine way. But with Wainwright out, an absence of even two spring starts by Carpenter was magnified. Now that he's back and on track for the regular season, things seem much more right in the Redbirds' world.

"A good day's work," manager Tony La Russa said. "I was pleased he had to cover first and make a play on a swinging bunt."

Carpenter got into a little trouble in the first inning, when a ground-ball single, a Miguel Cabrera double and a bloop single added up to two runs. He was in command for the most part after that, though, enjoying a 1-2-3 second inning and working around a one-out double in the third. He allowed a two-out single and walk in the fourth, and was pulled after allowing a leadoff double in the fifth.

It wasn't dominance, but it was solid. Carpenter was especially encouraged that he felt more effective and comfortable as he went along. He's confident that more sharpness and better results will come along in his remaining two Grapefruit League starts.

"It could be better," he said. "But it's my second time out in Spring Training."

Carpenter will get the ball again on March 21 against the Nationals, and then March 26 against Florida. After that, it's Opening Day, March 31, at Busch Stadium against San Diego. And he's basically right on schedule despite the missed time. Jake Westbrook went four innings his last time out, as did Jaime Garcia. Presumptive fifth starter Kyle McClellan pitched five on Tuesday.

Measured by pitch count, Carpenter is a little bit behind them, but not much. He's got time to catch up, too. Pitching coach Dave Duncan estimated that Carpenter will go 70-75 pitches in his next outing and 80-85 in the one after that, putting him in position to go 100 or so on Opening Day. Considering the fear in some quarters when Carpenter first went down on March 1, that seems like quite a victory.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.