ST. LOUIS — Over and over, Chris Carpenter insisted his elbow was fine. Sure, he got treatment, but who isn't sore this time of the year?
There was no let up from the Cardinals ace, who gave his all on defense and kept it close for six innings in St. Louis' 3-2 victory in the opener of the World Series on Wednesday night.
He gave the bullpen a bit of a break, too, becoming the first Cardinals pitcher to go six innings since his three-hit shutout over close friend Roy Halladay and the favored Phillies in the deciding Game 5 of the division series.
Guess he wasn't hiding anything after all.
"If you don't make a lot of pitches they're going to bang you around," manager Tony La Russa said. "The thing about Carp, he was exactly what we needed."
The 36-year-old Carpenter is 8-2 for his career in the postseason, breaking a tie with Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, who of course earned all of his victories in the World Series. Carpenter is 2-0 lifetime in the World Series and 3-0 this postseason.
This October, the Cardinals have won all four of the 36-year-old right-hander's starts.
"He's our guy," said Lance Berkman, who had a two-run single in the fourth. "When he takes the mound, I think we're going to win the game every time.
"You want to win the games that your ace pitches," Berkman added.
That brought a joking response from Carpenter, seated alongside Berkman at the podium: "I love you, Lance."
The 2005 NL Cy Young winner has always been a big-game pitcher for Cardinals, setting the tone for the rest of the rotation with a combativeness that can rub some opponents the wrong way. He's tangled with the Reds and Johnny Cueto, dodged a wad of chewing tobacco from the Brewers' Njyer Morgan and done his share of barking at umpires.
Carpenter's willingness to sacrifice his body to make a play on the second batter he faced had to impress his teammates in Game 1.
With one out in the first, first baseman Albert Pujols ranged so far to his right to field Elvis Andrus' grounder he might as well have been playing second base, and Carpenter had to dive to snare a low, long-distance toss. While sliding on his stomach, Carpenter tagged the base with the glove and then slapped it again with his right hand to make sure, then pulled the hand back just in time to avoid Andrus' foot.
"That ball in the first, I think we need to work on that one next spring," Carpenter said. "It was just an instinct. He threw that ball, it was a little out of my reach and I dove. I was like 'I'm going to go get it, and it turned out to work out."
Both Carpenter and Pujols made nice plays on Michael Young's grounder down the first base line to end the sixth. Pujols made the play several feet past the bag and timed the throw perfectly for a sprinting Carpenter.
"That's the play of the game, really, for us," La Russa said. "Carp getting over to first base is the second part of that good play."
Carpenter lasted only one inning longer than his Game 3 victory in the NLCS against the Brewers, when he gave up three runs and received treatment on his elbow afterward.
When manager Tony La Russa opted for a pinch hitter on Wednesday, it was more about tactics than a pitcher running on fumes given the Cardinals had two men on with two outs in the bottom of the sixth in a game tied at 2. The move paid off with Allen Craig's go-ahead single off Alexi Ogando, a slicing liner to right that barely eluded Nelson Cruz's attempt at a sliding catch.
The lone damage against Carpenter was Mike Napoli's two-run homer in the fifth.
"Very nice," catcher Yadier Molina said. "He was aggressive in the strike zone, only two runs. He did a great job."
Carpenter was quick enough to the plate that Molina had enough time to throw out Ian Kinsler attempting to steal after leading off the game with a hit. Baserunners were just 5 for 11 against him in the regular season.
The 36-year-old Carpenter was a deceptive 11-9 this year, very much the leader of the staff after 20-game winner Adam Wainwright was lost to reconstructive elbow surgery in spring training.
Craig was strong down the finishing stretch of the Cardinals' improbable drive to overtake flagging Atlanta on the final day of the season for the NL wild card, keeping the offense hot while Matt Holliday was out with a finger injury.
He's been their most dangerous pinch hitter in the postseason, going 2 for 5 with three RBIs, and foiled the Rangers' move to a right-handed reliever.
"That's why we like him so much," La Russa said. "He's got a history of taking great at-bats, especially runners in scoring position."