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FRANCISCO -- For the first time on his remarkable journey back from midseason surgery, the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter ran into a road block.
Carpenter helped his cause at the plate, hurt it in the field, and even if a healthy dose of bad luck contributed to his troubles on the mound, he scarcely resembled the postseason warrior the Cards were hoping would show up for Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on Monday.
The veteran right-hander lasted only four innings in the second-briefest postseason start of his career. Carpenter surrendered five runs, only two of which were earned, as a result of his own throwing error on a tricky play in the decisive fourth inning. And the Cardinals lost, 7-1, as the Giants pulled even in the best-of-seven series at one game apiece.
"It definitely didn't go in the direction I wanted it to go, I can tell you that," Carpenter said. "It has continued to get better as my starts have gone on, but tonight, it was not there. I wasn't very sharp. The fastball was not very good. But I continued to battle and did everything I could to give them a chance."
That Carpenter was less than 100 percent was understandable considering this game was only his fifth 2012 start. He was not supposed to pitch this year after surgery in July to relieve a nerve issue, which required surgeons to remove a rib under Carpenter's collarbone and two muscles in his neck.
But Carpenter did pitch -- three starts at the end of the regular season, then 5 2/3 scoreless innings against the Nationals in a Game 3 win in the NL Division Series. That game was Carpenter's 16th career postseason start, and the Cards improved to 13-3 in those games. In each start, Carpenter was better than the last.
"I think it's one of the most underrated stories out there," first baseman Allen Craig said.
Carp not sharp
Chris Carpenter's shortest postseason starts
But Carpenter's 17th postseason start was a struggle. Giants center fielder Angel Pagan started things for San Francisco with his second leadoff home run of this postseason -- joining Jimmy Rollins as the only players in history to hit a pair of leadoff homers in the same postseason. Carpenter needed 25 pitches to escape that inning.
Then he appeared to find a groove beginning in the Cardinals' half of the second inning, when Carpenter delivered a two-out double against Ryan Vogelsong for what ended up as the Cards' only run. Carpenter returned to the mound appearing renewed, tossing a scoreless 11-pitch second inning, and he was sharp again in a scoreless 11-pitch third.
In the fourth, the baseball gods knocked him off track. Carpenter retired Hunter Pence to lead off the inning, but Brandon Belt got the Giants started with a bloop double down the left-field line. With the infield in, Gregor Blanco chopped a single over the third baseman. The next batter was Brandon Crawford, who hit a soft chopper to the first-base side of the pitcher's mound.
Carpenter gobbled it up, but he forced a quick throw wide of first base, where Craig, who had briefly charged toward the baseball before retreating, was tangled up trying to find the bag.
Carpenter's throw skipped away for what was ruled a run-scoring error on the pitcher.
"It was a weird play," Carpenter said. "I got it, made a throw, Allen wasn't there. It was just a crazy play. It was no fault of anybody's. Just one of those plays that didn't work out."
Said Craig: "If I had to do it again, I probably would have taken a step and come back to the base a little earlier to give myself time. I'm just trying to be aggressive there, and it didn't work out."
It got worse when Vogelsong advanced the runners with a sacrifice, Pagan walked to load the bases and Marco Scutaro capitalized on Carpenter's biggest mistake, a 1-1 fastball that was supposed to be low and away but instead cut over the plate.
Scutaro lined it to left-center field for two RBIs, and a third Giants run scored on the play when left fielder Matt Holliday booted the baseball. Suddenly, San Francisco had a 5-1 lead.
"They hit some balls off the end of the bat," Carpenter said, "but it came to the point that I had an opportunity to make a pitch and get out of it, and I didn't. Scutaro got me."
"We have to remember that this is like his sixth start out of Spring Training," St. Louis pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. "[The Giants] are a good team. They hit mistakes well. I would say it's correct to see this as a step forward at this point, but you also have to look at this as being an elevated situation for him. He's been here before, but not much this year."
Carpenter was presented with the Spring Training comparison. He brushed it off.
"I'm not going to make excuses about what's going on there," Carpenter said. "I just didn't have good stuff. I didn't pitch well enough to win."
If Carpenter is to pitch again this postseason, the NLCS will have to reach a sixth game or the Cardinals will have to advance to the World Series.
Carpenter's teammates are hoping to see him on the mound again.
"I don't know how he described his outing tonight, but ever since his first outing in Chicago, his stuff has gotten better," said third baseman David Freese. "It's incredible, him fighting back from surgery when maybe a lot of people were counting him out -- maybe even himself. But he knew we had the opportunity to hang around in October.
"I can't wait for him to get on the mound again. I hope that's possible."