On Sunday, August 15, 2010, Kyle Lohse will make his first start in 85 days. The Cardinals right hander’s last start was on May 22, almost one year since being hit in retaliation by Kansas City reliever Ron Mahay.
The date was May 23, 2009. After a couple of rough starts, Lohse had been pitching a gem against the Royals. In the sixth inning, a pitch gets away from the Cardinals starter and hits right fielder, Jose Guillen. The Cardinals had a 3-0 lead and there were two outs in the inning, both being weak groundouts. Billy Butler was on first base with a sharp single prior to the Guillen at bat. There was no reason for Lohse to hit Guillen, other than a pitch that got away. There was no rally brewing, Guillen had been 0-2 at that point. No, it was just Kyle Lohse doing what fans of old school baseball have been pleading to see, throwing an inside pitch – it just got away from him.
Mahay’s, on the other hand, was pure retaliation. And it was costly – far too costly for the situation. With the outcome of the game in hand, it happened when Lohse came up to bat in the 8th inning. He’d thrown a 4 hit shutout thus far, totally dominating the Royals hitters. There were runners at first and third with just one out. There is no strategic advantage in putting Lohse on base, but Mahay threw high and inside when Lohse squared to bunt – far too high and way too inside. There was no reason to do that – it was not a squeeze situation. It did cost Mahay in the short term as he ended up walking in a run later in the inning, but in the big picture there’s little difference between a 4-0 shutout and 5-0. The price for the Cardinals was extraordinarily high.
Lohse would miss his next start, hoping that resting his injured arm would be enough. In his next start, he injured it further when trying to field an infield hit from Johnny Cueto. He had to be removed from the game, and for the first time in his career, Lohse would be put on the disabled list. He would struggle for the remainder of the 2009 season, finishing 6-10 with a 4.74 ERA.
Critics started screaming that Lohse has regressed to his career numbers and that his 15-6 and 3.78 ERA in 2008 was the anomaly. On the surface, that appeared to be true, but I’m not buying into that one bit. That doesn’t explain Lohse’s April 2009 when he started the season 3-0 and could have easily been 5-0. He’d pitched quite well and was making Cardinals fans feel better about the long term contact he’d signed in the off season. No, this wasn’t a regression, there was something wrong. It took a year, and a lot of frustration to find out what that was.
Lohse got off to a rough start in 2010. Critics had plenty to scream about, but the numbers really tell a different story. The big right hander was 1-4 when being shutdown after leaving a game against the Los Angeles Angels on May 22. He could have easily been 4-4 as several of his no decisions were the result of a bullpen failure or lack of run support. Too much is made of a poor pitching performance against the Diamondbacks, and many fans forget that Dan Haren struggled just as much as Lohse. As the season progressed, it was apparent that something was still wrong with Lohse.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. Lohse seeks out additional medical opinions and he finally finds a doctor that issues a diagnosis of an injury that has never been seen in baseball. The treatment is surgery that has never been performed on a baseball player. There’s no timetable for recovery, no long term prognosis. All of this is new. Lohse’s critics are armed with a new reason to dislike him: a phantom diagnosis to cover up the fact that he’s not a good pitcher any more.
To make matters worse, Brad Penny also goes down to an injury. It wasn’t thought to be serious at first, but week after week has now become month after month without the big right hander. At this point, Penny is not expected to return to the team, and if he does it will not be in the rotation. The implication of these two injuries is a retooling of a starting rotation which includes long reliever Blake Hawkwsworth, minor leaguers PJ Walters and Adam Ottavino and finally former Cardinals pitcher, Jeff Suppan. It has also cost the Cardinals one of the most productive players on the roster when right fielder Ryan Ludwick was traded for Jake Westbrook, just to give some stability and innings to the rotation. What was originally the strength of the 2010 Cardinals has suddenly become a huge vulnerability, and with the loss of Ludwick, now the offense and defense become question marks.
While Brad Penny rests and Dave Duncan furiously plugs holes in a leaking starting rotation, Kyle Lohse has surgery and starts his rehabilitation. While nobody knows exactly how this would play out, optimists were hoping for an August surprise. And indeed that’s what has happened.
Kyle started his rehabilitation with a couple of starts with the Memphis Redbirds (AAA). There was a lot to be optimistic about as he reached his pitch counts and reported no ill effects the next day. He made his regular bullpen sessions and optimism for his return is increasing. For his last rehab start, Loshe went down to Springfield (AA) and had a poor outing. Lohse’s story was that he went down there to work on a couple of things and not pitch like it was a game situation. The nay sayers are now screaming that Loshe isn’t ready, he won’t help a struggling rotation, and that the end of the world was coming soon. Lohse was sticking to his story in interviews, and he seemed to be disappointed when he learned that he would be sent back for another minor league start instead of being activated.
This is where I became a BIG Kyle Lohse fan. For full disclosure, I was a fan prior to this. I’d seen enough in his good and bad starts to know that he’s a good competitor and wants to pitch well. I didn’t know him well enough to know if the excuses were real or not, but at this point I think we owe him the benefit of doubt. All questions were answered when Lohse got on an airplane to go from Cincinnati to Reno, Nevada for his final rehab start. He had his choice of any place to play and he chose Memphis (AAA), even through that presented the most difficult travel.
While he got off to a bit of a shaky start, Lohse quickly turned it around and put on a clinic. In a hitter friendly ballpark, Lohse pitched 7 strong innings, throwing 101 pitches of which 65 were strikes. He gave up just three hits and stuck out nine. The sole run he surrendered came on an infield groundout. The man pitched one heck of a game, the best since that fateful day in St. Louis when Ron Mahay took a cheap shot and cost Lohse a year of his career. I guess that Kyle Lohse’s version of the Springfield game story is true after all.
On Sunday, Lohse takes a big step as he takes the mound as a Cardinal for the first time since May 22. It is a huge game against a division rival, one where we need a series win to maintain the lead in the NL Central. Win, lose or no decision, I am glad to see Lohse back with the big club. I hope that the fans give him the same ovation they gave Yadier Molina in the series opener – he deserves it. He has faced a year of adversity like a man and should be treated like one when he takes the mound.
Three weeks ago, the Cardinals lineup had more question marks than the Riddler’s costume. Consistent performance by Jon Jay has gone a long way to addressing some of those. Recent inspired play by Brendan Ryan and continued offensive success from Skip Shumaker has removed a few more. A successful return from Kyle Lohse means we can turn our attention to the one remaining doubt – 3rd base, and maybe Allen Craig can help us there. Suddenly there is a lot to be optimistic about in Cardinal’s Nation.
The ball in is Lohse’s hand, but before then it will be my hands applauding his return.
[Update] We now know how Lohse’s first start ended, and it wasn’t particularly pretty. He would take the loss in the game, pitching into the 4th inning. His official line was 3 innings pitched, 6 hits, 7 runs (all earned). He would walk 2 and strike out 3. Through the first three innings, Lohse was sharp. He made two bad pitches, both to Derrek Lee and unfortunately both of them left the park. Trailing 2-1, Lohse entered the 4th inning and didn’t retire a batter. He was hit hard and he would allow five runs to score, although some share of that should go to Mike MacDougal who relieved Lohse rather ineffectively.
We don’t know any more than we did going into this start, except that Cardinals fans are anxious for some more stability and contribution from the back of the starting rotation. It is important to remember that neither Blake Hawksworth nor Jeff Suppan were particularly effective in their first few starts. I would like to think that fans and sportswriters will be as patient with Lohse as they were with Hawksworth, and to a lesser degree Suppan, but I won’t be holding my breath on that. By September 1, we should have a good read on whether or not Kyle Lohse is going to be a contributor to a run at the NL Central division title. If not, expect to see names like Lance Lynn and Brandon Dickson in the list of September call ups, but I think that is highly unlikely. I think we will be just fine with Lohse in the rotation and he will return to his early 2009 form.