Chris Carpenter a leader in Cardinals clubhouse

Chris Carpenter looks to pitch the Cardinals back to the World Series on Sunday night. (Gary...

Chris Carpenter looks to pitch the Cardinals back to the World Series on Sunday night. (Gary Cameron/Reuters/Files)

BOB ELLIOTT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:13 PM ET

ST. LOUIS - Ben Cherington grew up in Meriden, N.H.

The Boston Red Sox general manager is nine months older than Chris Carpenter of Manchester, N.H.

They played baseball and hockey against each other.

The way Cherington tells it, he was once hit so hard by Carpenter, Cherington's helmet cracked.

"Peter Gammons told me that, I don't recall," Carpenter said at his locker the other day at Busch Stadium, "but I smashed a few helmets playing hockey."

What kind of helmets do they make in the Granite State anyway?

Was Carpenter the Zdeno Chara of New Hampshire high school hockey in 1990-91?

What kind of animal was he anyway?

The same kind the St. Louis Cardinals will send to the mound Sunday night to try and wrap up the best-of-seven, National League Championship Series. St. Louis leads the best-of-seven series 3-2 as it returns to AT@T Park.

* * * * *

Question to Milwaukee Brewers starter Zack Greinke at the 2011 NLCS before facing St. Louis: "After 18 meetings this year, do these two teams legitimately dislike each other?"

Greinke: "Maybe, no one really likes Carpenter, besides that, we respect mostly everyone on their team."

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Inside the cardinal red carpeted clubhouse -- where pictures of Cardinals Hall of Famers hang -- everyone loves Carpenter, the former first-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays.

"Carpenter's borderline crazy sometimes," says manager Mike Matheny. "He's unbridled most of the time."

Oh and a few Cardinals call the right-hander their leader.

Hold on a second ...

How can a pitcher lead anything except post-game handshakes once every five days?

Leaders are every day guys like Buster Posey, Derek Jeter, Robbie Alomar and Paul Molitor.

Leaders start 158 games at their position.

They don't make 34 starts on the mound, or do they?

"Chris Carpenter is our leader," said David Freese, Game 6 World Series hero from 2011. "He's one of the most vocal guys on our bench. He's a bulldog. He's unlike anyone I've ever been around. He's like an animal."

Freese is asked if he considered how the wild-card winning Cardinals won the play-in game over the Atlanta Braves and now sit a win away from making the Series a second year. Not an easy feat. Since the wild-card era began in 1995 only three teams have won the Series and returned to the Series the next year: the 1995-96 Atlanta Braves, the 1998-2001 New York Yankees and the 2008-09 Philadelphia Phillies.

"I'll be honest," Freese told reporters after the Cardinals won Game 4. "I don't think the last World Series has hit me quite yet. If we're fortunate enough to get back, wow."

Freese hit a 1-2 pitch for a two-run triple in the bottom of the ninth to force extras and in the 11th a walk-off homer forcing Game 7 against the Texas Rangers.

The Cardinals do not lead Baseball America each year when it comes to the best prospects. Yet, many arrive at Busch and deliver. Like Freese, who almost quit the game as a minor leaguer. Allen Craig took over for Albert Pujols. Pete Kozma, their Mike McCoy, fills in for injured Rafael Furcal, Matt Carpenter spelled an injured Carlos Beltan and Lance Lynn moved into Carpenter's spot in the rotation.

"Veterans make you welcome, you come up and someone will put your arm around you, make you welcome," said Freese, who admitted this year it felt like "we were being hunted. Last year, we were the hunters."

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Chris Tunno, of the Cardinals crack P.R. staff, tells about a night in the clubhouse when Carpenter and Adam Wainwright called over infielder Matt Carpenter.

"Hey 'Little Carp' ever heard a 250-pound parakeet chirp?" Carpenter asked the back up infielder.

As soon as Little Carp shook his head no, Big Carp let out a loud shrill, ear-splitting tweet.

"I was 15 feet away and it scared the heck out of me," said Tunno.

* * * * *

Cardinals hitting coach Mike Aldrete played 11 seasons in the majors. He was part of Tim Wallach's Montreal Expos, he was in the clubhouse with Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez's New York Yankees, with Tony Gwynn's San Diego Padres, Terry Steinbach's Oakland A's and 'Mr. Angel' Tim Salmon's Anaheim Angels.

"The only place beside here where the pitcher was the main presence in the clubhouse was Mike Krukow with the Giants," said Aldrete, a St. Louis coach for five seasons. "There is an interesting dynamic going on: he's older, he's been really, really good, he's had his butt handed to him, he's been everywhere in between, he's been hurt and battled back from serious injuries. And Albert is not here any longer.

"Chris Carpenter has the ability to relate to everyone in the clubhouse and where they are in their baseball life."

* * * * *

"He's our leader in the clubhouse, we're aware of what he's accomplished, all of what he's gone through," said rookie reliever Trevor Rosenthal, who was clocked at 101 miles per hour in Game 3.

* * * * *

In the final week of 2002, the Jays sat down with Carpenter in trainer Tommy Craig's office. Carpenter was coming off surgery and would not pitch in 2003. He wanted to stay with the organization for minimum pay plus service time.

General manager J.P. Ricciardi and assistant GM Tim McCleary told Carpenter there was not any guaranteed money out there for an injured free-agent shoulder and that they could not afford him.

We wrote it was a bad decision to toss away an arm like that during the post-season as Carpenter went 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA in 2005 on his way to winning the Cy Young Award.

We wrote a similar story again the next post-season as he went 15-8 with a 3.09 ERA, prompting McCleary to phone then sports editor Pat Grier and ask "is he going to write that story every year?"

* * * * *

Carpenter has made 197 starts with the Cardinals since leaving the Jays, and Sunday will be his 18th in post-season play.

His voice was heard as the Cardinals scored four in the top of the ninth to eliminate the Washington Nationals 9-7 in the deciding game of the NL Division Series.

Said Matheny: "He was screaming at everybody like always, but the message was believe in yourselves, believe in us, we can do something here, no matter the odds. That's something somebody can try to sell, but when you believe it, like he believes it, it's viral."

* * * * *

Matheny is into mentoring. He was a teammate of Pat Hentgen with the 2000 Cardinals. Matheny believes Carpenter learned his competitive ways from Hentgen during their Jays days. Now Cardinals pitchers learn from Carpenter.

Matheny sees the family tree like this: Hentgen, 43, as the grandfather, his son Carpenter, 37 and Adam Wainwright, 31, the grandson.

"Chris Carpenter is the guy who leads us, he and Yadier Molina," said Wainwright. "When Chris speaks it reflects to what one of us is going through at a certain time, good or bad.

"He taught me how to compete, how to be a professional."

If there was any doubt as to the closeness of the Carpenter-Wainright relationship it was there on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Wainwright was lifted for a pinch hitter after allowing one run in eight innings with an 8-1 lead in Game 4.

One pitcher hugged the other.

It was a mentor-pupil hug.

It was a father-son hug.

"The similarities are the competitive nature you can't teach, you can't fake," said Matheny of Carpenter and Wainwright. "We've seen that in big situations with these guys.

"They share the same traits in that they know what it takes to be successful at this level. It's about discipline, consistency and mental toughness. It's innate to them."

* * * * *

In Cooperstown we talked to Carlton Fisk, the only other first round draft pick besides Carpenter from New Hampshire. His son was best friends with Carpenter's older brother.

"I remember little Chris Carpenter tagging along," Fisk said.

* * * * *

Carpenter, selected by scouting director Bob Engle and area scout Ted Lekas in the 1993 draft, was not this way in Toronto.

"No, Pat Hentgen led, or at least the pitchers," Carpenter said. "The older you get things change ... I've been with this organization more than 10 years. I've been at both stadiums, I'm the only one left (along with Molina) from old Busch. I do get excited, I pat guys on the butt. I yell and encourage."

Few of the Cardinals sit on the dugout bench. They lean on the railing following Carpenter's example.

"I played the same time as our coaches -- Mark McGwire and Mike Aldrete -- played against most of the other coaches with visiting teams. Guys tease me about that."

Manager Matheny used to be his catcher in 2004. Now he's his manager.

Carpenter has allowed home runs to 168 different hitters in 31 different parks.

He had one of his right ribs removed in an unusual procedure designed to alleviate the pressure on the nerves that run to his right arm in Dallas.

Right elbow inflammation limited Carpenter to 24 starts in 1999, he had a shoulder injury and surgery in 2002 and had what the Cardinals said was season-ending surgery this July due to thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition in the area between the rib cage and collarbone that caused numbness down his arm to his pitching hand.

Yet there he was back on the mound Sept. 21 at Wrigley Field, minus one rib, pitching five innings. He made two more starts before the end of the season, won his only start against Washington (5 2/3 scoreless) and lost Game 2 to the Giants (four innings, two earned runs).

He has a 95-44 record since 2004, a .683 winning percentage -- the best in the majors during that stretch.

Carpenter won the comeback player of the year award in 2004, again in 2009 and wants to win a third.

First though, there is the matter of the NLCS ... and the Cardinals repeating as World Series champions.

bob.elliott@sunmedia.ca


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