But here Kyle Lohse is, the Cardinals starter in Game 1 of their National League Division Series with the Phillies. He's going up against reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay and a 102-win team in one of the toughest parks for pitchers in the Major Leagues.
It's a far cry from 2009 and '10, when Lohse missed the better part of two full seasons dealing with a forearm injury. It's also a far cry from early September, when he was being pushed back in the rotation for a second time, the result of a slump and an earlier finger injury.
Things can change quickly, as Lohse learned. He didn't even know for sure that he had the Game 1 assignment until the team's plane landed in Philadelphia on Friday afternoon. He had a hunch, since he would have started a potential one-game tiebreaker, but he didn't know.
"I got the official confirmation about 10 minutes ago, 15 minutes ago," Lohse said. "I kind of figured heading into it, if I was going to start that play-in game or whatever you want to call it, I figured I might get this assignment. [But] I wasn't counting on anything, because [manager] Tony [La Russa] wasn't letting any secrets out."
La Russa may be letting a different kind of secret out, however. It's a bit of a secret, nationally, just how good a year Lohse has had. He went 14-8 with a 3.39 ERA, 111 strikeouts and 42 walks in 188 1/3 innings. He made 30 starts, his highest total since 2008, and posted the lowest WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of his career.
Of all those numbers, the 30 starts may be the biggest deal. Lohse enjoyed a fine 2008 for the Cardinals and signed a new four-year deal at the end of that season. He started 2009 in the same fashion, pitching very well, but was sidetracked before midyear by a right forearm injury.
He tried to rehab without surgery, but it was clear he was never quite right. He averaged barely five innings per start down the stretch, posting a 5.43 ERA in that span.
When Lohse returned for 2010, he thought he was doing well. But the injury flared up on him again, and it was clear he wasn't recovered. He finally had surgery, nearly a year after he first suffered the injury, undergoing a procedure that was almost unheard of in baseball. His return went slowly, and it wasn't until his final start of 2010 that he really felt right.
The odyssey made it all the more remarkable when he came out firing early in 2011. Lohse had a 2.13 ERA at the end of May, and appeared to have a case for All-Star consideration. But as the year went on, his performance dipped. He suffered a finger injury in July, and even after he returned, he didn't return to form quickly.
Twice, once in August and once in September, he was pushed back multiple days as the Cardinals set their rotation for the stretch run. He wasn't pleased about it, though he kept mostly quiet on the topic.
Still, the time off seemed to benefit him. Lohse came on strong in September, pitching his way back to being a high priority. Now he gets the highest-priority assignment of all.
"I think the honest response, which I'm glad he has, is he wasn't happy about it," La Russa said. "But sometimes you bet on character, too. ... And I know the character he is, and he's not going to [say] 'I don't want the ball and if I go out there, I'm not going to try.' That's just not Kyle. So he handled it terrifically. And if he was ever wondering whether we lack confidence, he's gets the ball Game 1, so how much more confident can we be in him?"
The turnaround is striking, but not out of character for Lohse's last three seasons. There's been no shortage of ups and downs for the 32-year-old veteran of 11 seasons. He's making sure to enjoy it.
"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," Lohse said, "going through the injury and having a surgery that no one has heard of and all this stuff. It's pretty personally gratifying to be able to come to this point and be where I'm at right now."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less