Admit it. When you turned on the game last night, you thought you were seeing a ghost. Standing out there on the mound, looking as if he had every right in the world to be there, was the ghost of Chris Carpenter.
I have to say, in this whole long, twisted, crazy season, there may not have been a more exciting, more encouraging moment than watching as Carp swung into that first delivery. The mechanics were still instantly recognizable, even if the results were not quite what we're used to from Carpenter.
What I found the most encouraging, though, was that his elbow injury doesn't seem to have impaired his ability to sweat. Seriously, I don't think I've ever seen a human being sweat like Carp does. It was dripping off the bill of his cap by the end of the second inning. Personally, I think that Carpenter's sweat glands may, in fact, be the secret to his power.
So how did his stuff look? Well, I thought we might break it down pitch by pitch.
Fastball: He had excellent velocity on his heater, throwing it in the 90-92 mph range most of the night, right about where he typically was in the past. He dialed it up to 94 a couple of times to get it by hitters. Speed-wise, he didn't look as if he had ever been gone.
The movement on the pitch looked very good to me, too. One of the analysts on the post-game show (former Cardinals pitcher Rick Horton, I believe), said it didn't look like Carp had much life on his fastball, but I disagree. He looked to have excellent movement most of the night, getting in on the hands of quite a few hitters and even breaking a few bats. The location, on the other hand, wasn't very good. Carpenter struggled mightily in the first two innings to hit his spots before settling down and finding a bit of a groove in the third and fourth. The good news was that even when he couldn't seem to find his control, he was missing mostly out of the zone, rather than leaving the ball over the plate. Still, overall, you couldn't have asked for much more.
Curve: This was probably the worst of all of Carpenter's pitches last night. Of course, you probably had to expect that, given how much feel a curveball requires to throw properly. For most of the night, Carp looked to be ''casting'' the pitch out and leaving it up and on the third base side of the plate, rather than pulling down through the pitch. Still, even with all the troubles he had throwing the curve properly, he did break off about two good ones late in the outing, one to get a strikeout.
I think it's going to take a couple of outing before Carpenter can start using his curveball effectively the way he has in the past. I think he'll get it, but it's going to take some time.
Cutter/Slider: Personally, I thought this was probably Carp's best pitch last night. Even early in the game, when he was really fighting it, Carpenter's cutter was nasty. It had that sharp, late movement away from right-handed hitters that we've seen ever since he got here. Most of his swings and misses last night came on cutters, and he even threw a couple of them with some extra depth, more like a full blown slider.
I thought this was probably the most exciting thing that Carpenter threw last night. You simply can't throw a pitch like a cutter or slider, that requires sharp side-spin, with an elbow that isn't 100 percent healthy. He may still be trying to get his feel for the ball back, but there didn't look to be anything wrong with his arm physically.
Changeup: I've got to say, I was really surprised by how good Carp's changeup was last night. All night long, the changes he threw were consistently down, with excellent tailing movement. He didn't throw a ton of them, only seven by my count, but he was remarkably effective when he did throw the pitch.
Of course, the funny thing about this is the fact that Carpenter has never really thrown much of a changeup in his career. He's always had one, of course, but it's never been much of a part of his repertoire. During spring training in 2007, you may recall, Carpenter was working hard on his changeup, making it his biggest priority. He was throwing it more often than he ever had before, and was trying to sharpen the pitch into a real weapon to use against left-handed hitters. Of course, he then got hurt on opening day, and we never really got a chance to see if all the extra work on the changeup had paid off or not. Well, I have to say, if he can throw a changeup of the same quality we saw last night, then mission accomplished. His cutter was probably his best pitch, but the changeup may have been the most impressive, simply because I wasn't expecting it.
All in all, I think last night's outing was as encouraging as we possibly could have hoped for. This wasn't anything like the Mark Mulder deal, when we were hoping to see a pitcher simply come back healthy enough to contribute something, anything, even though we all knew he was never going to be the same guy again.
Chris Carpenter looked like Chris Carpenter last night. He wasn't as sharp as we've seen, of course, and he wasn't as sharp as I'm sure he'll be in a couple more starts. But there was no mistaking the man on the mound last night. He was Chris Carpenter, all the way.
Or, then again, he really might have been a ghost. Eh. Either way.