PHILADELPHIA • At one point during the Cardinals' celebration Wednesday in Houston, during a break between champagne showers, starter Kyle Lohse was pulled aside for a moment by pitching coach Dave Duncan.
The two had not spoken since Duncan took a leave of absence from the team in mid-August to help his wife recover from brain surgery, but that didn't mean the sage didn't have something to say.
"Any time Dunc speaks," Lohse explained, "you listen."
It was not a long conversation.
It made up for it in meaning.
"I wanted to tell him that he's a big part of what happened at the end of the season there," Duncan said. "He was really a solid guy every time he went out there. And without that, the ballclub doesn't get where it got."
Lohse will also have a role in where the ballclub goes next. Less than two months after being skipped in the rotation, pushed aside and momentarily reassigned to the bullpen, Lohse arrives at Citizens Bank Park this afternoon as the Cardinals' Game 1 starter in the National League division series. He was not told about his second career playoff start officially until 40 minutes before the Cardinals took the field for a workout Friday. But he had a suspicion. He could read the rotation.
For others, the stats were revealing.
With a no-decision in his final start of the regular season, Lohse fell short of a career-high 15th victory, but otherwise 2011 was perhaps his finest season. Lohse led the Cardinals with 14 wins and a 3.39 ERA. He won five of his final eight starts, and as the Cardinals stormed toward the NL's wild-card berth, Lohse was, as Duncan told him, an essential part of the run. The righty went 3-0 with a 1.72 ERA in five starts since the Cardinals fell 10 1/2 games behind Atlanta. The last of those wins came against Philadelphia at Citizens Bank Park, pitching opposite the same starter he'll face this afternoon, Phillies ace Roy Halladay.
"My year was kind of three parts," Lohse said. "I started off hot. In the middle, I kind of cooled off a little bit. And I started getting moved around a little bit. Apparently, it gave me the rest that I needed. I didn't feel like I needed a whole lot of extra rest, but I was struggling a little bit with the finger issue. It went away and I finished strong. There wasn't really something that I looked forward to getting skipped and pushed around, but it definitely helped out."
Then added: "I guess."
Lohse, who is in the third year of a four-year, $41 million deal with the Cardinals, was nonplussed when he had a start delayed and another skipped. During one seven-start stretch, he was removed from four games in the sixth inning or earlier despite having thrown fewer than 90 pitches. He lost five of those starts. In another game, he was listed as available out of the bullpen and had to wait until the later innings to throw his scheduled side sessions. The treatment confused him as much as irked him.
Manager Tony La Russa said at the time that Lohse's inconsistent starts and uncertain health necessitated the moves. Lohse insisted he was not compromised by a finger strain and did not receive treatment. La Russa played it conservative. He also wanted to rewrite his rotation to squeeze more starts in for Chris Carpenter, Edwin Jackson and Jake Westbrook. The manager conceded recently that if he could do it over, Lohse's September merited the priority starts.
"The two most important things with doing that were, No. 1, adjusting the rotation, believing we had a shot, and then trying to create as many possible favorable matchups as we could," La Russa said. "Sometimes you bet on character, too. I bet on it a lot. That's just not Kyle. So he handled it terrifically. If he was ever wondering whether we lack confidence, he's in for Game 1. How much more confidence can we be in him?
"Evidently, being upset didn't get in his way."
This figured to be a rebound year for Lohse, who had his past two seasons undermined by a forearm injury that required surgery to release tension in his right arm, an operation not performed before on a major-league pitcher. Healthy for the first time in two years, Lohse reacquainted himself with his slider and sinking fastball this spring and breezed through the Grapefruit League. He did not walk a batter during spring training, was the Cardinals' most efficient starter, and rode that momentum to a 7-2 start with a 2.13 ERA through May.
Then his control faltered, his finger ached and the squirrelly schedule started. The extra rest between a few starts gave the finger time to heal, and Lohse quickly reclaimed his career year.
"I think he's healthy, completely healthy, and he was focused then on what we needed him to do," Duncan said. "His breaking ball has been real good. His changeup has been good. He stayed away from his slider. ... The other stuff has been good enough that he hasn't needed that."
Two weeks ago, Lohse dueled Halladay to a 4-3 victory at the same ballpark that will host Game 1. Lohse did not allow an earned run and struck out five in 7 1/3 innings. He is familiar with the hitter-friendly dimensions of Citizens Bank Park, which he called home for half a season in 2007. In 10 games (nine starts), Lohse is 3-1 with a 3.52 ERA there.
It is also the site of his last postseason appearance.
In 2007, Lohse finished the season being yanked in and out of the Phillies rotation. He got 1 1/3 innings of work in a 10-5 loss to Colorado and shuffled off into free agency. When he signed with the Cardinals, he felt his finish with the Phillies had left him with something to prove. Sounds familiar.
Duncan pulled him aside Wednesday, in part, to say he had.
"I've told you how proud I am of being able to put the last two years in the past and come out and have a pretty strong season," Lohse said. "For it to come to this point where I'm starting Game 1 of a playoff series, that's pretty special to me and something that I've worked hard for — going through the injury and having a surgery that no one has heard of. It's pretty gratifying to be able to come to this point and where I am right now."
Today's pitching matchup
4:07 p.m., TBS
Roy Halladay vs. Kyle Lohse
Key Cardinals vs. Halladay
Player AB H HR RBI AVG
Berkman 5 2 1 2 .400
Schumaker 8 3 0 0 .375
Descalso 6 2 0 0 .333
Furcal 9 3 0 0 .333
Punto 14 4 0 1 .286
Laird 23 6 0 3 .261
Molina 5 1 0 0 .200
Pujols 11 2 0 2 .182
Holliday 6 1 0 0 .167
Theriot 7 1 0 1 .143
Jay 8 1 0 0 .125
Craig 4 0 0 0 .000
Freese 2 0 0 0 .000
Key Phillies vs. Lohse
Player AB H HR RBI AVG
Howard 16 8 2 8 .500
Gload 8 3 0 2 .375
Polanco 28 10 0 3 .357
Pence 41 13 0 2 .317
Ibanez 33 9 3 9 .273
Ruiz 20 5 0 1 .250
Victorino 24 5 0 0 .208
Rollins 27 5 1 1 .185
Utley 24 4 0 1 .167
Orr 1 0 0 0 .000