Cards build around Carpenter

Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty was roundly criticized for giving a two-year contract to Chris Carpenter, who was unable to pitch that first season because of an injury. Jocketty was questioned about making Jason Marquis his biggest trade if the offseason, and for making Jeff Suppan, not Greg Maddux, his biggest free agent signing last winter.

And yet here it is the first week of summer, the Cardinals are in first place in the National League Central, mainly because of their starting pitching. Only the Cubs' celebrated starting rotation has more quality starts in the NL than the Cardinals. "It (starting pitching) has been a strength,'' said Jocketty. "Our bullpen has been much better this year, but the key has been not using the pen as much because our starters go six or seven innings.''

The success of the Cardinals' rotation has been especially surprising since the two best members, Matt Morris and Woody Williams, haven't been close to their best this year.

Carpenter, who did not pitch last season after undergoing arm surgery in 2002, has been the ace of the staff, going 7-2 with a 3.95 ERA. "I spoke at a banquet last winter and told everyone how good Carpenter could be, and the people thought I was crazy,'' Jocketty said. "But we knew what he could do. Mike Matheny caught him in Toronto, he told us how good he was before he got hurt. It was just a matter of waiting for him to get healthy.''

Marquis was an enigma in Atlanta, but Jocketty traded a proven outfielder, J.D. Drew, for Marquis and Adam Wainwright, a young pitcher with potential. Marquis had a great arm, and was surrounded by star pitchers, but he was raw and stubborn. He has been anything but this year, going 6-4 with a 4.26 ERA. "He and (Braves pitching coach) Leo (Mazzone) didn't get along; they had a difference in philosophy,'' said Jocketty. "Dunk (pitching coach Dave Duncan) fell in love with him the first time he talked to him this spring. In baseball, sometimes you have to take a risk (trading a proven for an unproven).''

Maddux, who was one of Marquis' former teachers, was coveted by the Cardinals over the winter, but his price tag was too high, which is somewhat unusual for a franchise as healthy as St. Louis. Instead, the Cardinals signed Suppan, who is with his fourth team in three years. Still, he has been more than adequate as the No. 5 starter, going 6-5 with a 3.75 ERA. "He's a poor man's Greg Maddux,'' said Jocketty. "He's a location guy. And he gives us innings.''

The Cardinals have to hope that Carpenter, Marquis and Suppan keep pitching well, and Morris and Williams find their stuff. Morris has been especially confounding. He's 7-6, but has a 4.14 ERA and has allowed the most home runs -- 21 -- in the National League this year, a pace for 55 homers allowed, which would break Bert Blyleven's record of 50.

"There's no reason he can't be really good again,'' Jocketty said. "We're trying to figure out why he has given up so many home runs. He has been hanging some curve balls, but we're not sure if (it's been) a lack of concentration or what.''

Williams mysteriously injured his arm last winter. During his first throwing session this spring "the catcher was throwing the ball back to me harder than I threw it to him,'' Williams said. He labored all spring, and through most of the season, but on June 14 against the Rangers, Williams threw his best game, then said gleefully, "I'm finally starting to feel healthy.''

A healthy Williams, a rejuvenated Morris and similar production from the rest of the rotation will mean contention the entire year for the Cardinals, who have the best defense in the division, and one of the best lineups in the game. Last year, the Cardinals had two starters win as many as 12 games. This season, they have five on pace for 12. They haven't had five 12-game winners since 1947. Maybe Jocketty knew what he was doing.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.