From Butte to the Bigs

Hamilton City’s and Butte College’s Kyle Lohse gets a taste of playing in the Major Leagues

GIANT LEAP Kyle Lohse, standing second from left, as a member of the Hamilton High Braves.

GIANT LEAP Kyle Lohse, standing second from left, as a member of the Hamilton High Braves.

Courtesy Of Hamilton High School

Whatever phone booth pitcher Kyle Lohse found to change into Superman on Saturday night, the Twins would be wise to padlock it and surround it with pitbulls because they certainly could use it again.

—Brian Murphy, St.-Paul Pioneer Press, Aug. 19

Hamilton City’s Kyle Lohse had quite a ride this year. On June 20 the former three-sport standout as a Hamilton High Brave got the call that every kid who’s ever laced up a pair of spikes or softened up a new leather glove has dreamed about: an order from the top to join the roster of a major-league team.

Two days later, the tall, lanky pitcher earned a spot in the starting rotation for the Minnesota Twins, a team that was leading the Central Division of the American League, engaged in a race with the powerful Cleveland Indians.

In the young pitcher’s debut, in six and two-thirds innings he gave up four runs, nine hits and one walk but had five strikeouts. After that loss he went on to win his next four games and help keep the Twins on top of the Indians.

But after the All-Star break, both Lohse and the team began to slide. He lost his next six decisions. As you read this, the regular season is just about over, the Twins have been eliminated from the race, and Lohse is out of the starting rotation. But look for both him and the team to be back next year and considered by the rest of the league as something of a rising force.

Lohse’s leap to the big leagues was quick. Before the June 20 call, he was with the Twins’ Class AAA Edmonton Trappers. And just five weeks prior to that, he was pitching for the Class AA New Britain (Conn.) Rock Cats. When he was called, he was a combined 7-3 with a 2.69 earned-run average and had allowed only 17 walks and eight homeruns in 82 innings.

For a player his age, a first jump to the majors usually occurs in September, when teams expand their rosters by 15 to 40 players. The Twins didn’t have that option. They needed a live arm if they wanted to stay ahead of the Indians. And initially Lohse did not disappoint.

Maybe it’s small-town naïveté, but in the midst of a volatile pennant race, Lohse’s performance and demeanor came across as those of an unflappable seasoned veteran, not a hayseed farm boy who just a couple years back made all-conference at Butte College.

Minnesota Twins staff sportswriter Mark Sheldon described Lohse as “a pretty quiet, subdued kind of guy.” But he added, “He has strong poise when dealing with the media after good and bad outings.”

Ray Odom, the principal at Hamilton High School, coached Lohse in Little League as well as high school basketball.

“He was always a very exceptional athlete, even at an early age,” Odom recalled. “He started as a freshman on our baseball team. Now remember, our school had 200 students, and we played the likes of Lassen, Pleasant Valley and Chico. And we only lost two games all year. That’s little Hamilton High going up against schools with 1,500 to 2,000 students.”

Odom said Lohse and his younger brother Eric both benefited greatly from their parents’ positive influence.

(Unfortunately, we were unable to contact the Lohse family while doing this story, despite repeated efforts.)

The boys’ father Larry was a pitcher for Chico State and Shasta College, Odom said. His instructions to a young Kyle helped establish the needed mechanics the right-handed pitcher would eventually need to make it the top of his game.

Lohse was voted Hamilton High athlete of the year, and was the quarterback on the football team and the star basketball player. He was named most valuable player of the Mid Valley League his senior year.

“I’ve been here at Hamilton 24 years,” Odom said, “and I never saw anything like this. We’d have 10 to 15 major-league scouts at our games, each with his own radar gun tracking Kyle.”

Odom said there’s been a star athlete named Lohse at the school for the past 40 years— Lohse’s Uncle John played pro ball for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Lohse’s official Twins portrait.

Courtesy Of Minnesota Twins baseball

“Kyle was a good student, but he really loved baseball,” Odom said. “He was very focused and had a good work ethic. Becoming a pro was his goal.”

Though Lohse picked up wins in his first three starts, he, like the Twins, hit a swoon, and he became the primary victim of an offense that after the All-Star break regressed from aggressive to anemic. Most of his losses were regarded as “quality starts,” one of baseball’s many contradictions. A “quality” start is defined as pitching at least five innings while allowing three earned runs or fewer.

Lohse pitched twice in front of millions on ESPN’s Game of the Week; sparked an international incident when he beaned baseball’s leading all-star vote getter Ishiro Suzuki; and started a home game minutes following a Kirby Puckett address before 45,566 at the Metrodome mere days after Puckett’s induction to the Hall of Fame.

Speaking with Lohse during the heat of his improbable run, the young man came across like a guy who’s been in the Bigs 12 years, not a couple of months. Articulate and confident, he exuded an unflappable aura, as if to convey that the hectic events of the past 10 weeks were nothing more than another day at the office. He appeared unfazed by the enormity of it all.

Because the Twins were in the heat of a pennant race—average attendance jumped from 14,204 last season to nearly 24,000 in 2001—Lohse appeared in front of packed houses from the day he moved to Minneapolis.

“It’s an awesome feeling pitching in front of full house, but you have to shut it out and get into your game,” he said during a phone interview from his home in August. “Just do your job and don’t get distracted. Just go out and make your pitches. You can’t think about it. Focus is everything out there.”

A call up from triple-A is the defining moment in a ballplayer’s career. The odds are long, the competition intense. Originally drafted by the Cubs in 1997—he was traded to the Twins in 1999—Lohse recalled the night the phone rang.

“We were in Omaha. After the game they told me to hang around, not to go back to the hotel. I knew something was going to happen.”

Since his promotion, Lohse gets by on the major-league minimum salary of $200,000, but you’ll hear no whining when he picks up a check every two weeks.

“I make more in one day with the Twins then I did in two weeks in the minors,” he said.

This summer he plunked down a portion of that paycheck on a condo in Florida, where he plans to spend the off-season with his wife, the former Gabrielle Vernier, whom he met at Butte College.

Those like former coach Odom who witnessed Lohse’s formative years say they have no surprise whatsoever at the heights the pitcher’s reached in a remarkably short span. Lynn Brown, manager of Chico’s Tower Records, recollects watching Lohse nine years ago at a Little League Tournament of Champions in Biggs. Brown’s son had the misfortune of facing the young Lohse.

“I could see our team had never seen the likes of a kid who threw a 70-mile-an-hour fastball,” Brown said. “And when he threw his curve he was simply buckling their knees. We lost. Go Twins.”

Just as in his Little League days, Lohse said his primary pitch is his fastball, which is consistently clocked at 90-93 mph.

According to Dennis Brackin, who writes for The Sporting News fantasy baseball Web site, “Lohse effectively mixes four pitches—fastball, slider, curve and changeup. If he can establish his fastball … he has a chance to win at the major-league level.”

Lohse has been fortunate enough to meet and mingle with Mr. Minnesota Twin himself, Kirby Puckett, one of baseball’s truly nice guys, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.

“He’s completely accessible. I met him at spring training. He’s got a lot of energy. Kirby’s the best guy to hang with. He’s always in the dugout. His just being there energizes the team.”

While life has been sweet the past couple months, whether Lohse shows it or not the pressures of remaining at the highest level of baseball are nerve racking. At the July 31 trading deadline, rumors were rampant that Lohse might be shipped to Pittsburgh or Colorado. Still, in the face of the possibility of going from first to worst overnight, he remained philosophical.

“The were moments when I thought I might be traded, but you can’t get caught up in it. Whatever happens happens. Just as long as I’m in the Bigs.”

Which is where his little brother Eric isn’t. But it was while talking about his brother’s recent promotion from the Twins’ Gulf Coast League A-level team to a notch up in the minors for the playoffs that emotion returned to the stoic Kyle.

“I’m proud of Eric," said Lohse. "He’s developing, and with any luck he’ll be pitching with me in the starting rotation before long. Now that would give Hamilton City something to talk about."