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The fantasy star we never saw coming

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The year was 2000 and it was a gorgeous afternoon for baseball. I was at New Britain Stadium in Connecticut, home of the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats (a Minnesota Twins affiliate).

Before the game, I remember waving a poster over the railing, trying to grab the attention of one of the dozen or so players warming up along the first base side.

I was only 10-years-old and I was a little intimidated by the parade of six- foot tall baseball players warming up so close to me.

Finally one of the players approached me. Smiling, he took out a Sharpie and scribbled his name on my crinkled poster before making his way to another young autograph seeker beside me.

It was tough to make out exactly what he wrote but after looking at his number and matching it with a team roster I found in my program, I was able to figure out that this young man was Kyle Lohse, a 21-year-old starting pitcher from California.

The rest of that season I scoured the newspaper box scores every few days to see how Lohse was doing.

Unfortunately, he wasn't doing very well. Lohse finished that season 3-18 with a 6.04 ERA.

Never in a million years did I think Lohse would make it to the big leagues after getting shelled like that in Double-A. But here he is.

Lohse, now in his 12th season of major league service, has been downright dominant in 2012. The former Rock Cat is 3-0 with a 0.99 ERA in four starts. Lohse also owns an 8:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .170 batting average against. Right-handed batters are only hitting .143 against him this season.

Back when he was with New Britain, Lohse could bring the heat, sometimes hitting up to 95 mph on the radar gun. Nowadays, his heater sits in the high 80s, yet he's more effective than ever.

Lohse is the definition of a crafty veteran. While many of the league's young arms rely on overpowering opponents with their velocity, Lohse prefers to outsmart hitters by employing a variety of different pitches.

Lohse has always had a potent curveball and hitting his changeup is like trying to hit a snowflake. He also has an impressive slider that he'll use on up to 20-percent of his pitches. And of course, there is that sinking fastball that can morph any home run champ into a groundout machine.

Fantasy owners are catching on. The 33-year-old is now owned in 94.9-percent of leagues, up 11.7-percent from last week.

But what took everybody so long to hop on the Kyle Lohse bandwagon?

As unhittable as Lohse has been the last two seasons (in 2011 he was 14-8 with a career best 3.39 ERA and a 2.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio), his resume isn't overly impressive.

Lohse has a losing record for his career (105-106) and has only posted two sub-four ERA seasons (2008 and 2011). He has never made the All-Star team and Lohse is only two years removed from a horrific 4-8, 6.55 ERA season.

Concerns about his age, his demeanor (he was once suspended five games for throwing at Edinson Volquez), his lack of strikeouts (his career high for a season is only 130) and his decreasing velocity have also made owners skeptical about Lohse's fantasy worth.

I have a different take on Lohse. Where others see shortcomings, I see opportunity.

This isn't the American League East we're talking about. Lohse plays in the NL Central, the cushiest division in major league baseball.

That means the Cardinals will play a combined 75 games against the Astros, Brewers, Cubs, Pirates and Reds this season. All five of those clubs are below .500 right now and out of the five only Houston (.250) is hitting above .235 as a team.

Lohse has pounded NL Central opponents this season (2-0, 0.90 ERA in three starts) and he should continue to throughout the year. During his career Lohse has compiled a 3.92 ERA in 427 1/3 innings against the NL Central, more than half a run lower than his career ERA of 4.58.

Lohse shouldn't have any trouble with run support either. In the National League, only Atlanta (91 runs) has scored more runs than the Cardinals this season (82) and nobody in the NL has been able to match St. Louis's .281 team batting average.

The Cardinals have been able to reach these numbers despite Lance Berkman, Jon Jay and David Freese all missing games with injuries and with Matt Holliday (a career .313 hitter) batting under .200.

St Louis's offense is hitting on all cylinders right now, so even when Lohse's ERA starts to rise a little bit (because it won't stay at 0.99 forever), Lohse should still be in a position to win almost every time he takes the mound.

Lohse doesn't have the reputation of stars like Felix Hernandez and Roy Halladay, but in fantasy, he might be just as productive this year. I see Lohse as this year's Ian Kennedy.

And to think that it all started with a 3-18 season down in Double-A. And yes, I still have the poster Lohse signed 12 years ago.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.

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