Commentary

Kyle Lohse was in control, then wasn't

Cards righty was cruising … until a disastrous sixth inning cost him and St. Louis

Originally Published: October 1, 2011
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- As Kyle Lohse's pitches darted in and out of the zone Saturday night, the Phillies' hitters swung awkwardly, and they swung quickly. Bolstered by a lead on the road, Lohse looked in control and like he had picked up where he left off during the regular season, when he was one of the best pitchers in the league. The Cardinals seemed to be in position to pull off an upset in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

Then came the sixth inning. Then came Ryan Howard. Lohse, so efficient through his first five innings, started to elevate his pitches and the hitters, namely Jimmy Rollins and Hunter Pence, found holes. Staked to a 3-0 lead behind Lance Berkman's first-inning homer, those hits -- off the end of the bat, through the hole -- were the ones Lohse could live with. Then there was Howard.

On the eighth and final pitch of his at-bat, Howard took a cut on Lohse's fourth changeup during the sequence, and this time he did not miss. It was a three-run homer to right field, and a turning point in an 11-6 Cardinals' loss. It was a stark reminder how hard it is to beat these Phillies at home, against their stellar starting pitching and in this hitters' park.

"You have to outscore them with their starting pitching," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "And that's not going to be a good formula."

The Cardinals felt that essentially the game came down to two pitches. The first was to Howard, then two batters later, another changeup to Raul Ibanez, who slammed a two-run shot.

"I felt like I was in command, moving the ball back and forth," Lohse said. "I wasn't trying to strike everybody out, just trying to keep the ball in play."

Until that point, he had. But the turnaround was sudden, and it unleashed the Phillies' offense, which during the regular season was far inferior to the Cardinals (which scored a league-high 762 runs this season). That offense in part enabled St. Louis to storm back from a 10.5-game deficit in August and win the wild card. Lohse's dominance in the last month certainly helped, too. He had a 1.37 ERA in September, which was the third-lowest in the NL. And over the last 31 1/3 innings, he hadn't given up any homers.

"He made two mistakes all day," first baseman Albert Pujols said, "and they took advantage of that."

So how did everything turn so quickly? It was all jump started by Howard, who entered the night without an RBI in his last nine postseason games. Lohse said felt he was in good position entering the middle to-late innings because, while he threw his changeup earlier in the game, he picked his spots with it, relying instead on his sinker.

"The first time through the order they were swinging early or they'd take a strike and then they'd swing," Lohse said. "We blew through the first several hitters with sinkers and the occasional changeup and I thought that would work to my advantage later in the game. And it did, up until a point."

On the seventh pitch of the at-bat and a 3-2 count, Howard fouled off a changeup and both the runners were in motion. Maybe that distracted Lohse, maybe it didn't, but his next pitch was deposited in the seats.

"Ryan's at-bat was a huge turning point for us," Ibanez said. "He fouled off some really tough pitches … some of the pitches he fouled off were off the plate; they were very tough pitches. That was a great at-bat."

By the time anyone realized Lohse was in trouble, it was too late. Octavio Dotel got up in the bullpen, but soon thereafter Ibanez smacked Lohse's 78 mph changeup to right field. It was 6-3, and the game felt decidedly over. La Russa summoned for Dotel, and Lohse walked back to the dugout, not a single player sitting on the front benches got up to greet him. He went into the clubhouse and watched the tape that confirmed his missed location.

The collapse might have been somewhat familiar to Lohse; it was here, four years ago when he was pitching for the Phillies and gave up a grand slam to Rockies second baseman Kaz Matsui. The Phillies were swept by Colorado in the first round and it was one of Lohse's lasting memories during his brief stay with the team. Instead of an underwhelming second baseman, Saturday night it was an overpowering slugger. Four years later, his team may be different but the results, unfortunately for the Lohse and the Cardinals, are the same.

"I had a lot of good chases," Lohse said. "I'll take my chances in any count, with any batter. It just didn't work out tonight."

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn.com.