LOS ANGELES -- All along, Chris Carpenter kept the secret.
Truth is, when he termed his July 19 surgery as season-ending, Carpenter himself didn't buy into it. When he talked about preparing for 2013, he wasn't ruling out pitching this season. What came across as a pitcher resigned to a lost year was one internally challenged by what he knew no one could possibly expect.
Carpenter intended to do everything he could to pitch this year.
By not making that declaration, however, it meant that Carpenter would ensure expectations couldn't be dashed, as they were in March and again in June.
Yet here he is, one simulated game away from fulfilling the goal that only he had. Barring any surprise development, Carpenter is set to make his season debut next week.
"Gotta love surprises," general manager John Mozeliak said earlier this week.
A pitcher whose 2012 impact was supposed to come as a cheerleader has worked himself into position to provide an unexpected jolt during the season's final weeks. When Carpenter is on the mound in big games, he tends to meet the occasion in a way few others can.
"You can't really find a negative about Chris Carpenter," teammate Skip Schumaker said. "I don't care if he gives up 10 runs in his first outing, because his presence alone -- you come to play that day with Chris Carpenter. You know you're going into a war with him. There are not too many guys like him."
Carpenter's season-long journey has been circuitous and interrupted by various setbacks.
Before Carpenter picked up a baseball in Jupiter, Fla., some wondered how the 37-year-old would bounce back after throwing 273 1/3 innings in 2011. That concern would soon be trumped by an even larger one, as Carpenter was shut down after experiencing numbness and weakness in his shoulder, arm and neck during Spring Training.
A three-month resting period commenced, after which Carpenter tried to return to the mound again. That attempt was short-lived and ultimately led to a visit to a Dallas-area specialist, who recommended surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome. That was to be the end of 2012.
The club announced an expected recovery time of three to four months for Carpenter. The right-hander's ability to expedite the process, though, had as much to do with the physical conditioning Carpenter did before surgery as it did with anything he has done since.
"I went into [surgery] strong enough and knew that if I came out of it strong enough, I thought there was a chance," Carpenter said. "My goal the whole time was to be prepared to let these guys know how I felt at the end of the season so they could go into the offseason knowing what they could count on me for next season."
It wasn't until mid-August that it became obvious that Carpenter looked not like a pitcher preparing for Spring Training, but as one readying himself for the immediate.
About that time, he also started joining the club on road trips.
"He's been great the last couple of weeks when he's been on the road," closer Jason Motte said. "It's been a little bit different. He brings that intensity. He brings that attitude. To be able to get him back would be awesome. To see him pitch the way he has before would be fun to watch."
Assuming Carpenter's 90-pitch simulated game on Saturday represents the final build-up benchmark, Carpenter should be available to pitch as many as three times before the end of the regular season. The cover boy for the term "big-game pitcher," Carpenter would also be fresh and available in the postseason, should the Cardinals return.
"Any time you have Carpenter, you're in a better position," said All-Star Jay Bruce, whose Reds could run into the Cards in the playoffs. "He's proved that over the years. We'll just have to see, though. Obviously, he's been battling to get back, and everyone knows the type of competitor and pitcher that he is. Any time he's on the mound, they have a chance."
While no one knows exactly how much Carpenter will resemble his old self, most expect him to be at least good enough to help steady a recently wobbly starting rotation.
Jake Westbrook is sidelined for an undetermined amount of time, which has forced the Cardinals turn back to Lance Lynn. Jaime Garcia has yet to show an ability to throw well on the road. Adam Wainwright and Joe Kelly are accruing innings counts that, for differing reasons, could become a concern.
From Aug. 24 through Wednesday, the rotation has posted a 5.91 ERA. Opponents have hit .328 off it. The club is 7-12 during that span.
In other words, the rotation could use a fresh face.
"I think everybody that knows Chris Carpenter and has been around him and knows how competitive he is, knows he will bring some excitement to the club," Mozeliak said. "I think anybody who has ever been on the DL knows that contributing as a cheerleader is hard. The most respected players in the game carry some weight. But being active and being a live contributor just adds to your credibility."
Credibility is hardly something Carpenter needs to have substantiated. Owner of baseball's best winning percentage (.693) since 2004, Carpenter has more postseason wins (nine) than anyone in Cards history.
Last year, Carpenter sealed a Wild Card berth for the club with a two-hitter on the final day of the regular season. Days later, he outdueled Roy Halladay in a decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series. Carpenter ran his 2011 postseason record to 4-0 with a victory in Game 7 of the World Series, which he pitched on three days' rest.
"He was a horse down the stretch and in the playoffs," Motte said. "That Game 5 against the Phillies and Doc, I don't know how a lot of people would have reacted to being in that situation, but he welcomed it with open arms. Last year, watching him down the stretch and everything he was able to do for this ballclub, if it wasn't for him, we don't do what we did.
"Win, lose or draw, he was going to compete harder than anyone, and that's really all you can ask for."