SAN FRANCISCO -- A year ago, Kyle Lohse was almost an afterthought when the Cardinals made out their postseason pitching plans. He made three starts in the team's 18 postseason games, never going twice in the same series or pitching on fewer than six days' rest.
A year later, Lohse is the man they slot everything else around. For the second time in three rounds, he will take the mound in a game where his team is sure to either advance or be eliminated. This time it's Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, as the reigning World Series champions try to salvage a series they once led, 3-1.
"We couldn't be any happier to have Kyle Lohse on the mound," said manager Mike Matheny, "knowing that we're going to have another tough day with Matt Cain, who isn't going to make a lot of mistakes either."
Key stat: Lohse wasn't sharp in Game 3, but he was able to pitch through jams over his 5 2/3 innings to get around five walks and seven hits allowed, surrendering only one run.
Key stat: In Game 3, Cain allowed three runs on six hits over 6 2/3 innings, though his solid start was doomed by poor run support.
At AT&T Park
2012: N/A Career: 4 GS, 3-1, 3.42 ERA
2012: 15 GS, 7-4, 2.86 ERA Career: 121 GS, 47-38, 2.98 ERA
Against this opponent
2012: N/A Career: 5 GS, 3-2, 3.78 ERA
2012: 2 GS, 1-1, 6.94 ERA Career: 8 GS, 2-3, 4.94 ERA
Loves to face: Aubrey Huff: 5-for-27, 4 K Hates to face: Hunter Pence: 14-for-50, 2 2B, 1 3B, 2 RBI
Loves to face: Matt Holliday: 8-for-43, 11 K Hates to face: Carlos Beltran: 7-for-19, 2 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 5 RBI
Why he'll win: Lohse is 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA in three starts this postseason.
Why he'll win: Cain has grown stronger in each of his three starts this postseason, lasting 5, 5 2/3 and 6 2/3 innings, respectively.
Pitcher beware: After walking one batter in each of his first two starts this postseason, Lohse put five on base in Game 3.
Pitcher beware: Among active pitchers with at least 200 career starts, Cain receives the lowest run support, an average of 3.85 runs per game.
Bottom line: Lohse has been the workhorse and quiet leader for the Cards this season, earning this shot to send St. Louis to the World Series for the second straight year.
Bottom line: Cain has been the ace of the Giants' staff, and they wouldn't want anyone else on the mound with a chance to go to the World Series on the line.
It will be Lohse vs. Giants ace Cain at AT&T Park on Monday at 7 p.m. CT on FOX. It's a bigger stage than Lohse's start against the Braves in the NL Wild Card playoff game, but with similar stakes. A victory would send the Cardinals to the World Series for the third time in the past seven seasons, with a chance to repeat as champions. A loss would send them scattering for the winter -- and potentially end the free-agent-to-be's St. Louis career.
The Cards were in control of the series just a few days ago, but they dropped Game 5 at home and Game 6 at AT&T Park. They're trying to become the second team since 1975 to win a best-of-seven series after losing Game 6 on the road.
"Unfortunately, we don't win until we absolutely need to," Lohse said. "So it's one of those things where obviously we would love to have taken care of business the last two games. We haven't. But we know we've played a bunch of elimination games the last few years. We have pretty much the same crew of guys, and we know it's time to get it done."
Lohse faced the same equation on Oct. 5 in Atlanta, where he limited the Braves to two runs in 5 2/3 innings of a 6-3 Cardinals win that refreshed the baseball world's knowledge of the infield fly rule. It's the fifth time in the past two postseasons that the Cards have played an all-or-nothing game, and they're trying to become the second repeat NL pennant winner in the past 16 years.
"I don't think we look at that as pressure," Lohse said. "I don't think we care about that, to be honest with you. We're focused on right now, what can we do to get back there? History doesn't play any part of it for us. They obviously have got a good crew over there. They've shown that they can play pretty well with their backs up against the wall, too. I don't think we're too worried about anybody's past, because we've both shown we can be pretty resilient when our backs are up against the wall."
Lohse had mixed feelings about his most recent outing, in Game 3 of the NLCS, a 3-1 Cardinals win in which the right-hander needed 108 pitches for 5 2/3 innings, surrendered seven hits and five walks, but managed to yield only one Giants run. Twice, Lohse walked Buster Posey, the Giants' NL MVP Award candidate, to tangle with someone else. In inning after inning, Lohse danced out of trouble.
And that's what Lohse has done all season. He was 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 33 starts and a career-best 211 innings. In three postseason starts, Lohse is 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA and a .227 opponents average. He's become his club's go-to pitcher in this postseason, ahead of co-aces Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter.
"How could you not have faith in that guy?" said infielder Daniel Descalso. "He's been great for us all year, and I know Kyle's going to come out and compete for us tomorrow."