WASHINGTON • There is a consensus among coaches, results, and even the pitcher himself that Cardinals righthander Kyle Lohse has taken his career year into October and been even better, but it's not because each start he makes could be his last with the club.
It's because each start could be his last of the season.
"We're seeing stuff-wise, everything a click or two higher than at any point in the year with the exception of his first two starts maybe," pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. "Adrenaline is really kicking in for him."
Lohse, the first Cardinals pitcher to start twice in the playoffs this season, provided seven strong innings Thursday night at Nationals Park before his team tumbled in the ninth to a 2-1, walk-off loss to the Washington Nationals. The loss tied the best-of-five National League division series at two games apiece, and it means a Washington victory tonight will send Lohse into free agency, where it is likely he's going to receive offers too rich for the Cardinals to match. Starts like Thursday's are reasons why.
The righthander held the Nationals to one run on two hits. The run came on Adam LaRoche's solo home run in the second inning. LaRoche was the only National to reach second base safely against Lohse, who exploited a generous strike zone and Washington's aggressiveness with the added October oomph he's displayed. He calls it the result of not looking ahead to saving fuel for three or more starts this month.
Only the one at hand is guaranteed.
"That's a good way to look at it," Lohse said after the Cardinals' loss. "I'm trying to do the same things I've done all year. Obviously, I feel a little fired up. I'm throwing a little hard in the first couple innings, maybe even the whole game. I feel strong. I feel good."
With each inning Lohse does pitch himself closer to what is likely the end of his five-year relationship with the Cardinals. The team has four returning starters under contract for 2013 and a desire to pit All-Star Lance Lynn against prospects Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal for the fifth spot. Jaime Garcia's uncertain health — he's dealing with a shoulder injury that could require surgery — could change the equation, but not likely the budget. Lohse and the Cardinals have had a mutually beneficial five seasons together. Lohse received a total of $45.25 million for his contributions, and the Cardinals received a steady righty when healthy who led the team in wins and ERA last season and, for an encore, put together a 2012 that will earn him votes for the Cy Young Award.
Lohse earned the start in the wild-card playoff against Atlanta because he was the team's most consistent starter. He went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA during the regular season by mostly outwitting and unsettling opponents.
In October, he's overmatched them.
"I think the word that goes with Lohse is 'frustration,'" third baseman David Freese said. "He's a guy who nibbles. If he's getting something he's going to keep working it and see how much else he can get."
Fresh from his first career playoff win in the play-in game in Atlanta, Lohse found many elements of Thursday's game tilting to his benefit. The Nats are an aggressive team at the plate. Home-plate umpire Jim Joyce increased the hitter's eagerness with a wide strike zone.
"It was," Lohse said, "nice."
Lohse retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced. The only one to reach was LaRoche, whose homer was his ninth hit in 30 at-bats against Lohse. Lohse faced the minimum in his final 3 2/3 innings, and in the fifth he retired the Nationals in order on four pitches. He had five strikeouts as he continues to pitch against any type when an opponent allows him.
"Kind of my reputation is for being down in the zone all the time, so it's not bad to come up," Lohse said. Added Lilliquist: "Controlling the counts and being able to expand the strike zone are imperative to his game. All that plays right into his hands."
He did go back to the lower reaches when he needed it.
In the seventh, with the bullpen stirring, Lohse pitched around LaRoche to avoid trouble and faced Mike Morse with a runner on. At the end of last month, Morse hit a grand slam off Lohse, one that after review led to Morse pantomiming his swing at the plate to satisfy the umps. On Thursday, he saw one pitch, a sinker. Morse rolled it to third for an inning-ending double play. Lohse gave a jubilant fist pump after that pitch, his last of the evening. He collected 21 outs on 87 pitches.
The grounder was one of three he got outs on Thursday, a departure from his usual grounded preference. Chris Carpenter had similar results in Game 3 as 12 of his 17 outs from the Nats came in the air. Adam Wainwright, who unnerved the Nats with his curve in Game 1, may not follow that same approach.
He will, however, likely embrace Lohse's philosophy.
"Everything I've got every time," Lohse said. "There is no reason to hold anything back right now."