When he was claimed off waivers by the Braves at the end of last November, David Carpenter was a bit concerned. Not upset like he was when the St. Louis Cardinals told the then-struggling minor league catcher in 2008 they wanted to convert him to relief pitcher, but concerned nevertheless.
Carpenter knew how good Braves relievers had been recently and how unpolished he was compared to some of the horses they had returning, including closer Craig Kimbrel, setup men Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, and rookie Luis Avilan. And that was before he found out they traded for Angels flamethrower Jordan Walden the same day they claimed him.
“When I first got picked up off the waiver wire, I was just wanting to get a chance to come over here and be in the ‘pen, no matter what role,” said Carpenter, who struggled with an 8.07 ERA in 33 appearances with Houston and Toronto in 2012, after posting a 2.93 ERA in 34 appearances as an Astros rookie in 2011.
He’d get a chance to compete for a spot in Braves spring training. But there were only one or two openings.
Somehow six months later, he would become an Atlanta essential.
“They had it locked down with Jonny and (O’Flaherty) and Craig, and then you had Waldo (Walden) come in,” Carpenter said. “I was just hoping to come over and get a chance, mop-up innings or long relief, something like that.”
He impressed with his 97-mph fastball in spring training — “I saw Carpenter throw yesterday; the ball flies out of his hand,” Venters said on the third day of camp — but Carpenter began the season at Triple-A Gwinnett.
Venters tore an elbow ligament late in spring training, but Carpenter wasn’t recalled until April 20, and then only for depth after Avilan strained a hamstring. Carpenter didn’t pitch in a game until May 10, when he gave up two runs and two hits, including a homer, in 2 1/3 innings at San Francisco.
Gradually, he began getting in games and doing well, but not until late May, after Walden (strained shoulder) went on the 15-day disabled list and O’Flaherty had elbow surgery, did manager Fredi Gonzalez begin to try him late in close games.
“Early on in the season, he was the long guy,” Gonzalez said. “He starts pitching better and better and in more significant innings, and you feel confident that he can pitch in those situations.”
Carpenter cranked out scoreless innings almost every time he was called upon, relying on command of his explosive fastball and an improved slider and split-finger pitch.
He gave up at least one hit in each of his six May appearances, allowing nine hits and seven walks with seven strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings. But in 31 appearances since, he has a .179 opponents’ average with 50 strikeouts and nine walks in 39 innings.
The sturdily built West Virginian has become an integral part of a bullpen that leads the majors in most categories, including ERA (2.40), opponents’ batting average (.213) and opponents’ OPS (.590).
Carpenter has a 1.57 ERA since his two-run debut and he’s part of the key group — with Avilan, Walden and recent acquisition Scott Downs — that provides the bridge to National League saves leader Kimbrel. Kimbrel (1.07 ERA) and Avilan (1.21) rank second and third in the league in relief ERA. Carpenter (1.86) is seventh.
“Very impressed,” catcher Brian McCann said. “He’s a power arm, gets strikeouts and I think he’s taken that next step in understanding what he wants to do with the ball. His role has increased and he keeps putting up zeroes.”
Carpenter entered Sunday’s game against Washington in the seventh inning, with runners on first and third and one out, the Braves protecting a 2-0 lead. He gave up an RBI single to hot-hitting Jayson Werth, then struck out Adam LaRoche. Gerald Laird threw out Werth trying to steal second on the strikeout for an inning-ending double play.
Werth’s hit was just the sixth in 44 at-bats (.136) against Carpenter with runners in scoring position and third in 39 at-bats (.077) in close-and-late situations, a category in which he leads Braves pitchers.
“He didn’t even start the year here,” Walden said. “Now, looking at what he’s doing, I’m like, God, some teams missed out on that. He’s done a heck of a job for us.”
To get Carpenter, who turned 28 last month, the Braves paid only a $20,000 claiming fee. He’s the latest in a string of astute waiver pickups by general manager Frank Wren and his assistants. O’Flaherty and Anthony Varvaro (Seattle), Jordan Schafer (Houston), and Cristhian Martinez (Miami) were all waiver claims.
The Red Sox, his fourth organization, got Carpenter as part of an October trade for Blue Jays manager John Farrell. The Astros had traded him and pitchers J.A. Happ and Brandon Lyon to Toronto in a three-team, nine-player deal in July 2012.
Carpenter learned plenty from veteran Brett Myers while in Houston and in Atlanta, he’s had a wider group of current and former players to glean information from, citing Tim Hudson, pitching coach Roger McDowell, bullpen coach Eddie Perez and a couple of pitchers-turned-broadcasters.
“It’s nice having guys like Huddy and Rog to really help you through things,” he said. “You’ve got John Smoltz and Don Sutton walking around here. If you’re not picking their brains, there’s something wrong with you.”
When someone mentioned that Houston had the makings of a stellar bullpen if they’d kept him and Mark Melancon, the current league ERA leader with Pittsburgh, Carpenter smiled.
“I think both of us can say we’re happy where we’re at right now,” he said. “You can’t beat being with a team like this. With a great clubhouse like we’ve got, it makes it a lot of fun. I’m just very fortunate and very thankful.”