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Carpenter gets Opening Day nod after strong return to the mound for Cards

LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — Chris Carpenter was given a vote of confidence in his return to the mound from a hamstring injury: he was named the St. Louis Cardinals’ opening day starter.

In his first outing since March 1 when he injured his left hamstring, Carpenter gave up three runs and six hits in four innings for the Cardinals in a 9-4 victory Wednesday over the Detroit Tigers.

“I feel fine right now and I’ll be ready for opening day,” Carpenter said. “All I need to do now is get my pitch count up and not hurt anything. It felt better as I went along.”

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was impressed with Carpenter, who even made two quick moves to throw out Tigers runners and had no problem backing up home plate.

“The biggest tests were the ones he made in the field,” La Russa said. “He’ll be ready for opening day.”

Carpenter, who went 16-9 with a 3.22 ERA, is likely getting the start because 20-game winner Adam Wainwright is out for the season after having reconstructive surgery on his right elbow Feb. 28. Wainwright was at the Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Fla., to begin his rehabilitation.

The Tigers got to Carpenter for two early runs, but Carpenter said he never felt frustrated. He got out of the jam and only allowed three hits the rest of the way before being pulled after giving up a double to Austin Jackson to open the fifth.

“I am as close to opening day as I can be,” Carpenter said. “I could have gone farther, but it’s early and I just need to throw more.”

Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan has some concerns with hiking Carpenter’s pitch count for the rest of the spring.

“Right now he is right where we want him to be,” Duncan said. “We hope to have him at 75 pitches next time.”

Albert Pujols, who hit a long grand slam off Adam Wilk, said he liked what he saw out of the Cardinals ace.

“That’s the same old Carpenter,” Pujols said. “We are all just praying he doesn’t hurt (his hamstring) again.”

Pujols may have sent some shudders through National League pitching staffs when he said that he has never felt better at this time in spring training. His grand slam was his first homer of the spring and, despite entering the game with a .233 batting average, he said he’s never gotten around on the ball as quickly as he has now.

“I feel almost too good now,” Pujols said. “Right now it feels like April already and I have to start pacing myself.”

Tigers starter Phil Coke was rocked for seven runs in 3 2-3 innings and reliever Daniel Schlereth, battling for a spot at the end of the Tigers bullpen, allowed four consecutive walks and only retired one batter.

There was a lighter side of the game when Lance Berkman of the Cardinals accidentally let his bat fly out of his hands on each of his first two at-bats, both times flying at the head of Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who simply ducked out of the way.

Leyland was sitting in a folding chair just next to the Tigers first base dugout. When Berkman came up for his third at-bat, he walked up to Leyland and handed him a catcher’s mask. The bat didn’t slip that time.

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