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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

The Cardinal Nation Blog top stories of 2010 #6: The Penny/Lohse injuries

On consecutive days in late May, starters Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse went down with injuries that would wreck their personal seasons and arguably that of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Many times, the magnitude of a big story is evident from the moment it occurs. That was not the case on May 22, however, despite two members of the St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation, Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse, having gone down with injuries on consecutive days.

At the time, the severity and staying power of the injuries were not fully understood, but as they lingered on, the impact on the club was felt both directly and indirectly for the remainder of the year.

Lohse’s recurring forearm problem required surgery that would sideline him until mid-August, while Penny’s shoulder ailment was originally thought to be so minor that he would miss just three weeks. In reality, Penny did not pitch again.

The Cardinals tried a series of fill-in starters but were not satisfied with their results. They included Blake Hawksworth (eight starts, 5.83 ERA) and Adam Ottavino (three starts, 7.53 ERA). P.J. Walters posted a 3.96 ERA in three 2010 starts, but had suffered his worst outing on June 1 while giving up seven runs in four innings to the Reds. He did not start again for St. Louis until the final week of the season.

By mid-June, the club had turned to former Cardinal Jeff Suppan, released by Milwaukee in his final year of a four-year, $42 million contract. The 35-year-old did a credible job for St. Louis overall, posting a 3.84 ERA in 15 games, 13 starts. He allowed two runs or less in nine starts but still managed just a 3-6 record.

Suppan was carefully deployed by the Cardinals, missing the entire month of August due to what was called a strained right groin. He was only reactivated when rosters expanded in September and pitched his best baseball during the final month as the season slipped away.

As the July trade deadline approached, the organization realized that Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia were not enough starting pitching to carry them down the stretch. Penny’s return seemed increasingly unlikely, Lohse was still out and the youngsters had not impressed.

On July 31, general manager John Mozeliak made a surprise trade – an offense-for-pitching swap that would define the 2010 season. Popular right fielder Ryan Ludwick was dealt to San Diego in a three-team deal that netted the Cardinals starting pitcher Jake Westbrook. Clearly the deal would not have been necessary had Penny and Lohse been at full strength.

Westbrook did his part with St. Louis but the already-struggling offense did not rebound from the loss of Ludwick. A few days after the trade, third baseman David Freese was proclaimed out for the remainder of the season and replacements like Felipe Lopez and Pedro Feliz came nowhere near picking up the necessary slack.

The Cardinals 2010 season ended in disappointment. One can argue that the May Penny and Lohse injuries were the beginning of the end.

More on their seasons follow.

Penny’s spent

Like the 2010 Cardinals, Penny was hot to begin the season, with three wins and a 0.94 ERA through his first four starts. It all unraveled on May 21. After hitting a grand slam off the man he replaced in the Cardinals rotation, the Angels’ Joel Pineiro, Penny exited the game after three innings.

The injury was diagnosed as a strained latissimus dorsi muscle on his right side. Penny was placed on the disabled list the next day with an expectation he might be able to return in as soon as three weeks.

As the days turned to weeks and months, the organization showed increasing frustration with the lack of progress in Penny’s condition. On July 6, the 32-year-old was scheduled to face live hitters for the first time, but instead had to be shut down after experiencing discomfort. Had the workout been successful, Penny would have made a rehab start in the minor leagues in preparation to return after the All-Star break. Manager Tony La Russa called the setback “a big negative”.

That was as close as Penny came to pitching again. He did not return to game action for the remainder of the season, missing over four months and 116 games in total. Having joined St. Louis on a one-year contract, Penny is not expected to return to the club in 2011.

Lohse’s luck

Lohse battled through a second consecutive season of injury in 2010 after signing a four-year, $41 million deal following the 2008 season that includes full no-trade protection. The then-31-year-old did not start the season well, becoming the final member of the Cardinals season-opening starting rotation to record a win upon picking up his first 2010 victory on May 17.

His next start on May 22 of just 3 1/3 innings would be his last before being placed on the disabled list. On May 28, Lohse underwent fascial release surgery to relieve nerve compression in his right forearm.

Lohse’s recovery timetable was at least as mysterious as Penny’s due to no past precedence. It was the first surgery of its kind ever performed on a professional baseball player.

The right-hander would spend 84 days on the DL and even after resuming pitching, required an extended rehab. Lohse made four minor league starts, three with Triple-A Memphis and one with Double-A Springfield, pitching 19 innings of 4.74 ERA ball, culminating in his August 15 return to St. Louis.

The rest of the way, Lohse went 3-4 with a pair of no-decisions. His ERA rose from 5.89 at the time when he went onto the DL to its season-ending 6.55.

Lohse completed the season on a positive – his only scoreless outing of the year. In his 18th and final start on October 2, he went seven shutout innings against Colorado. Lohse allowed just three hits, issued four walks and fanned five.

It remains to be seen which Lohse takes the mound in 2011.

Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 20 stories of the year countdown

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