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Carpenter pitches a work of art

Carpenter pitches a work of art vs. Padres

SAN DIEGO -- If you're a baseball fan of any stripe, Tuesday's performance by Chris Carpenter was a thing of beauty.

Sure, rooting interests play into it. Padres fans couldn't have been too happy after Carpenter shut down their club in another opener of a National League Division Series. But their Cardinals counterparts had to be ecstatic.

Like last year, it was Carpenter-Jake Peavy again in Game 1. Like last year, it was once again no contest. Carpenter outpitched Peavy in every facet of the game, his curveball dancing like the flame at the end of a torch. The Padres were extinguished, 5-1, and trail the best-of-five series, 1-0, with what is now a critical Game 2 at PETCO Park on Thursday.

"You know coming in that you have to be at your best," Peavy said about the October rematch. "He didn't win the Cy Young last year for nothing. Obviously, he's a candidate again this year, so your margin for error isn't very big at all."

Peavy wasn't up to it. Last year, a cracked rib was the explanation for his 8-5 first-game loss in a series the Cardinals swept. This year there were no excuses. None at all. And the results were the same.

In the battle of right-handers, Peavy was like a construction worker on the mound, having a hard time carving up the right pieces of the strike zone. Carpenter was Monet, using home plate as a palette and the scoreboard as his canvas. The result was a cornucopia of colors. A rich experience for any baseball fan to witness.

"I appreciate that," Carpenter said. "It's called pitching. You go out, keep people off balance, work back and forth on each side of the plate and execute. You don't do that, you'll get beat. If you do that, you'll have success. And I was able to do it."

Statistics don't lie. In their head-to-head NLDS confrontations, Peavy has allowed 13 runs on 19 hits in 9 2/3 innings for a 14.38 earned run average. Carpenter was at the other end of the spectrum: one run on eight hits in 12 1/3 innings for a 0.73 ERA.

Tuesday, it was one run on five hits for Carpenter when manager Tony La Russa pulled him from the game with runners on first and third and one out in the seventh.

For days, La Russa has been answering questions about his decision to forego starting Carpenter at St. Louis against Milwaukee on the final Sunday of the regular season. He started Anthony Reyes instead, holding Carpenter for a possible Monday makeup against the Giants or Game 1 of this series.

Reyes didn't make it out of the first inning and the Cardinals lost. Only after the Astros also were defeated at Atlanta to end the season could La Russa breathe easy. Not only did the Cards barely squeeze out the NL Central title, but they now have a chance to take control of this series. Reyes isn't on the postseason roster. Carpenter made La Russa look like a genius.

"Not pitching Chris on Sunday, that's probably got more attention for the easiest decision I've ever had to make," La Russa said. "That was just so straightforward. If there's a way of pitching him today, you had to take it. Our club plays better when he pitches. Nobody in the league is better than he is."

Carpenter proved that again Tuesday.

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Faced with a critical situation in the fourth inning, Carpenter was masterful. With runners on first and second and no one out, the counts to the next three hitters went full. But Carpenter dropped that Picasso of a curve on Adrian Gonzalez, who looked miserable striking out swinging. Mike Piazza chopped a fielder's choice grounder to short and was visibly perturbed as he collected himself at first base. And Russell Branyan didn't have a chance as he whiffed to end the threat.

"He had good stuff," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said about Carpenter, whom the Padres beat up a week ago in St. Louis. "He's a tough pitcher. We knew we had our work cut out against him. He made pitches when he had to. But we did have some chances. We just couldn't get the big hit. But that's why he is as good as he is. He pitches well in traffic."

And Bochy's guy didn't.

During the top of the fourth, when Piazza gave Albert Pujols a second shot after missing a foul pop at the backstop, Peavy didn't come up big. Big Albert ultimately put the ball where few do in the three-year-old downtown ballpark -- into the center-field bleachers. The ball traveled on a high arc, carrying the Padres' hopes for the day along with it.

Peavy nearly choked on his words when he was asked if Piazza should have made the play even though there was some conjecture that the ball might have deflected off the screen.

"Obviously it was a big play, because it didn't get made and [five] pitches later the guy hits a 500-foot home run to put them up, 2-0," Peavy said. "It was a big play, a tough play, no doubt about it."

The slider that Peavy put out over the plate to Pujols was a big one, too, and stood in stark contrast to the mix and matching of fastballs, sliders and curves tossed by his counterpart.

During one Carpenter sequence, the radar gun registered, 95, 96, 77, 78, 94 and 76 mph. The man was obviously pitching with a plan and a clue, making it almost impossible for Padres hitters to outguess him.

Yes, it was a thing of beauty, unless you were among the Friar Faithful. For everyone else it was a cold and lovely, perfect work of baseball art.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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