Rounding Third: Cards crossing their fingers with Carpenter

The St. Louis Cardinals' season was thought to be over before it even started last season when ace Adam Wainwright tore a ligament in his elbow which ultimately needed to be repaired by the dreaded Tommy John surgery.

Of course, we all know what happened after that. The Cardinals eventually staged one of the great September comebacks of all time to reach the postseason, then capped an improbable run with the franchise's 11th World Series title.

Since then, though, the team has lost manager Tony LaRussa as well as three- time National League MVP Albert Pujols, replacing the former with an unproven commodity in Mike Matheny, who has never managed a game, and the latter with an aging oft-injured outfielder in Carlos Beltran.

But, still expectations were running high in the Gateway City. A lot of that optimism has centered on the return of Wainwright, who has looked every bit as good this spring as the pitcher who won 20 games for the Cardinals in 2010.

The team, though, has received news that has tempered those hopes and brought back all the painful memories of last spring when the Wainwright injury came down.

Right-hander Chris Carpenter returned to St. Louis on Tuesday to be further examined by nerve specialists after continuing to experience symptoms associated with a bulging cervical disc that began to bother him more than two weeks ago.

After throwing live batting practice Sunday, Carpenter felt what the club has described as "weakness" in his neck, shoulder and upper arm on Monday. He has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game this spring and this latest development all but assures Carpenter won't be ready by Opening Day.

While Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak described Carpenter's return to St. Louis as "precautionary," he did say the issue appears similar to the nerve-related condition that ended the former Cy Young Award winner's seasons in 2004 and 2008, and flared again in 2010.

The group of specialists that Carpenter will visit in St. Louis are the same he consulted after the '08 season that suggested surgery.

It could be nothing. Players are sent back from spring training all the time for what Mozeliak labeled "precautionary" reasons. But, in this case there is absolutely a cause for concern.

Potential surgery aside, this is an issue that, one, has reared its head in the past and, two, Carpenter is 37 and coming off a season that saw him throw a league-high 273 1/3 innings, including the postseason. At some point that has to take its toll, as well, no matter someone's age someone.

It's not as if the Cardinals weren't prepared here. As soon as the team learned of Carpenter's neck issues, it started to transition reliever Lance Lynn back into the rotation.

Now it looks as if he'll head north with the Cards as one of their five starters, along with Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia. When or if Carpenter joins that group now may be the ultimate determination if the Cards will get a chance to defend their title in October.

It was already going to be a transition year for the Cardinals. But if this latest blow is as bad as some think it may be, it could be too much to bear.

Then again, though, we may have said the same thing last year when Wainwright went down.