Chris Carpenter never pretended this was some trip to CandyLand. His attempted comeback from a chronic nerve disorder complicated by lower back issues was advertised as a long shot. Truth to tell, what transpired at AutoZone Park Saturday night did nothing to improve those odds.

The 2005 National League Cy Young Award winner brought small college stuff against the Oklahoma City RedHawks. His fastball command was absent. His curveball rolled. And a Triple-A opponent drove him from the fourth inning after scoring four earned runs on nine hits and two walks. Carpenter ran his pitch count to 74 while achieving only 10 outs. By his own admission Carpenter is nowhere close to consideration for a major-league rotation, never mind October.

Carpenter didn’t feel bad. He felt ineffective. He slipped the second inning only when the last of four consecutive bottom-of-the-order hitters who reached base against him ran into an out.

Instead of swinging misses, Carpenter settled for foul balls. Rather than work with a cutter that took an abrupt left turn, he fought one that bent but wouldn’t break.

The night’s harshest assessment belonged to a man who sounded like someone closer to the end of his career than a return to a contender.

“I have a long way to go before I can get outs up there,” he said. “If I can’t get outs down here, never mind getting outs up there.”

Hours before Carpenter toiled for the Memphis Redbirds he noted how much better he felt during Monday’s rehab at Class AA Springfield than during his two abortive starts in last October’s National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants. The first two innings at Springfield were encouraging before hitters found his dull cut fastball with a third-inning double and home run.

Speaking more clinically than emotionally, Carpenter found no redeeming value in Saturday.

“I didn’t feel like I was as sharp as I needed to be or should have been,” Carpenter said inside a clubhouse meeting room as the Redbirds played out a one-sided loss. “It wasn’t what I was looking for.”

While Carpenter warmed pre-game in the bullpen, a hospital helicopter landed on the field to deliver the ball for first pitch. A Memphis police K-9 unit carried out some impressive training stunts. An inflatable horse race took place uncomfortably close to home plate as Carp prepped for the second inning. However, Carpenter couldn’t attribute any piece of his performance to the marketing sideshows or the oppressive heat that swallowed his 6:05 p.m. start.

Another tough conversation may be rapidly approaching. The Cardinals need to clarify their direction as they enter the deep stretch. Carpenter, currently on his sixth rehab assignment with his second organization, realizes the compressed timeframe in which he works.

General manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny admire Carpenter for many reasons, his bluntness included. There is too little time left in the Cardinals’ season for games of make-believe and pantomime.