ST. LOUIS — Kyle Lohse has made the most of these moments. They come like gold nuggets in a season-long dig: An efficient start here, a clutch postseason showing there, more signs of growth from the seasoned 34-year-old, more proof that he has placed himself in prime position for whatever comes after this contract year.
The moments occur in a vacuum for the St. Louis Cardinals’ resurgent right-hander. No matter the test, no matter the scenario, no thought is given to the dark tunnel behind or the horizon ahead.
A 16-3 regular-season mark with a 2.86 ERA, followed by laser-focused starts in this cold-sweat month against the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals? Concentrate on now.
An uncertain future once a four-year, $41 million deal expires after this October bungee jump? Master the present.
“I do a pretty good job of staying in the moment,” Lohse said Tuesday of his career-best campaign. “Maybe after the season I’ll look back more and take it in a little bit more, but right now … I’ve still got things I want to accomplish personally and as a team. So I know it’s been about as solid of a year as you can have.”
The thing about defining moments is that another always follows. There’s always another stage. There’s always another challenge. There’s always another spotlight in which someone can shine or shrink.
So here comes another chance for Lohse on Wednesday, when he faces the San Francisco Giants in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium. He’ll be paired against right-hander Matt Cain, who enters 0-2 with an 8.27 ERA in three career starts at the ballpark by the Mississippi River.
Both finished with regular-season marks worthy of a mirror — Cain went 16-5 with a 2.79 ERA — but they will grip the rubber drifting in opposite directions. Lohse has pitched as steady as a boulder in the postseason while Cain’s control has wavered like the needle on a faulty gas gauge.
Consider: In the NL wild-card game against the Braves, Lohse threw 5 2/3 innings, giving up two runs and six hits while striking out six. Later, he gave St. Louis seven innings in Washington in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, allowing one run and two hits while striking out five.
Meanwhile, Cain’s pockets were picked clean in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds, allowing three runs and five hits while striking out four. Later, he lasted 5 2/3 innings in Game 5, surrendering three runs and six hits while striking out five.
“Even the days that I don’t have my good stuff, I feel like I’m going to try to find ways to get through that,” Cain said. “And I think that’s something I try to do and, hopefully, the guys can feed off that and pick me up the days that I don’t have the good stuff.”
The Giants must pick up Cain if his good stuff remains elusive. Most of the summer, he was a flame-thrower. Lately, he has thrown loose snow.
That doesn’t sound favorable for San Francisco when you consider the skeletons in Cain’s attic against the Cardinals. He split two starts against St. Louis this season with a 6.94 ERA. Overall, he’s 2-3 with a 4.94 ERA in eight starts against his Midwest nemesis.
Sure, he has talent. Will it be tamed?
“He’s a tremendous talent,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of Cain. “He’s got four pitches, and his makeup is off the chart. You look at the year he’s had — he started the All-Star Game. He’s so consistent. I’d say all of those things that I just mentioned are all very strong traits that he has. But more than anything, I think how he has dealt with some really tough games where he’s pitched well. He’s never pointed a finger. He goes out there and gives everything he’s got, every time he pitches.”
Those same words could have come from St. Louis manager Mike Matheny about Lohse. The Chico, Calif., native became a steady burn for the Cardinals this season. He provided stability during a year in which ace Chris Carpenter was little more than a shadow for most of it; Carpenter only had three regular-season starts because of recovery from surgery that required the removal of a rib near his collarbone.
Here’s what Lohse’s fire looks like: Winning 11 of his last 12 decisions, not dropping one since a loss to the San Diego Padres on Sept. 12. His wild, frayed days with the Minnesota Twins — he dented manager Ron Gardenhire’s office door with a bat during a 2005 tirade — are a distant memory.
Baseball teaches, spitting out those who fail to adapt. Humility? Lohse has it. The Cardinals are stronger because he does.
“Just like anybody, I think you stick around in this game long enough (and) you kind of settle in, kind of figure out who you are, what you are,” Lohse said. “I had a lot of stuff going on in Minnesota, where I’m sure it’s been documented, some things that I did that I’m not proud of. But you learn and move on. … And the guys that don’t learn and get better, I think, get out of the game.
“I’m 34 now, pretty confident in what I can do out there. I know what’s expected of me. I like being a leader in the clubhouse.”
He enjoys that role, and on Wednesday, he has another chance to show it. There’s always another stage. There’s always another spotlight.
So far, living in the moment has worked for Lohse.