ST. LOUIS — Kyle Lohse packed up his locker, shook some hands and said his goodbyes Tuesday afternoon in the Cardinals clubhouse at Busch Stadium.
But he had trouble walking out the door.
The right-hander almost certainly won’t be back with the Cardinals next season. He is set to cash in on a big payday in the free-agent market this winter, while the club likely will go with one of its younger and cheaper starters in his place.
He knows it. The Cardinals know it. And that made leaving tougher Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s been a great place for me,” Lohse, 34, said. “It’s a business. It’s a fun game, but a business.”
Lohse was in no hurry to leave, taking his time packing his belongings into boxes and a pair of red Cardinals duffle bags. He stopped several times to talk with teammates, members of the clubhouse staff, public-relations staff and the media.
He hugged Jason Motte on the closer’s way out the door, reminding him that their Words with Friends battles on their iPhones could continue no matter where he ends up next season.
Less than 24 hours removed from his poorly timed worst start of the year that ended the Cardinals season with a 9-0 loss in San Francisco in Game 7 of the NLCS Tuesday night, Lohse had a tough time coming to grips with the end.
“I wasn’t planning on being here doing this today,” Lohse said. “I was hoping to be talking in the room about tomorrow, but that’s not the way it is. This is reality. We have to pack up and get ready for a new season.”
Lohse just finished a four-year, $41 million contract extension that he signed late in the 2008 season, and is in line for an even bigger contract this winter after his 16-3, 2.86 numbers this season.
The Cardinals have several impressive young pitchers, including Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller and likely will use the money Lohse will command in trying to lock up starter Adam Wainwright to a long-term contract.
When Lohse signs his new deal, he’ll have former pitching coach Dave Duncan and the Cardinals to thank. The right-hander turned around his career in St. Louis, becoming one of the best pitchers in the league by the end of this season.
He was an unimpressive 63-74 with a 4.82 ERA with the Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies from 2001-2007 before going 55-35 with a 3.90 ERA in five seasons with the Cardinals.
“I’m completely different than I was before I came over here,” Lohse said. “My style and approach to pitching has changed quite a bit. I feel like the numbers I put up before coming here, I feel like you can throw out because I feel like I was a completely different guy.”
Asked about his 2012 campaign, Lohse said, “It’s too early right now, I’m still a little depressed about yesterday, but I’ll get over that and maybe in a week or two I’ll be more happy with how things went.
“I was definitely proud with a lot of things I did. I felt like this year was the most consistent I could have been with my approach. Every year you’re shooting for that consistency, and last year I felt like I was right there, but this year the numbers were better.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals seem like two possible destinations for Lohse, who is represented by Scott Boras. Other possibilities include the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks. Lohse lives in Arizona during the offseason.
Lohse figures to be one of the best free-agent pitchers on the market. Other top free-agent pitchers include Zack Greinke, Jake Peavy and Brandon McCarthy, but only Greinke figures to get more money than Lohse.
“I can’t do anything until the World Series is over,” said Lohse, who could get a four-year deal for upwards of $15 million per season. “We’ll see what offers are out there. There are certain places I’d like to go and certain places I probably wouldn’t. There will be some big decisions coming up, and we’ll see how it plays out.
“I’m not going to be obviously jumping at the first offer out there. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it with my family that I have to worry about. I definitely want to play for a winner. There’s a lot of stuff that comes into play. It will be interesting. It’s too early right now because I don’t know what teams are interested. Obviously I haven’t heard from anybody. We’ll see how it goes.”
Lohse has had no communication with the club regarding a contract and doesn’t expect to in the future. Both sides appear content with parting ways on good terms.
Asked if he would want to stay in the National League, Lohse said, “It doesn’t matter to me. It just has to be a good situation. I don’t really have any insight right now because I don’t know who wants to talk.
“I haven’t heard anything here so that doesn’t sound good.”
Regardless of where he ends up, he knows he’ll have several million reasons to be happy. Lohse enters the market at the perfect time, coming off the best season of his 12-year big league career.
“It’s definitely better than being 3-16,” Lohse joked. “So it’s good.”