Braden Looper Shining in New Role

With Chris Carpenter still disabled, Adam Wainwright and Kip Wells faltering lately and Anthony Reyes yet to win, Braden Looper easily has been the Cardinals' best starting pitcher this season.

Looper, converted from the bullpen, where he had made 572 consecutive major league appearances, worked six or more innings for the fifth straight start Wednesday night. No-hitting the Reds for 4 1/3 innings, he gave up only three hits and one run over seven innings before the Cardinals broke a 1-1 tie with four runs in the eighth.

The veteran right-hander has a 1.91 ERA for his first 33 innings as a starter and has given up just two homers -- one of them to the Reds' Josh Hamilton in the sixth inning Wednesday.

"He was part of a winning game even though he didn't get the win," manager Tony La Russa said.

The Cardinals' victory was just their second in nine home games. Looper also was part of the other win, gaining a 10-2 victory over Milwaukee at Busch Stadium on April 15.

A sign of the times, perhaps: Albert Pujols delivered the game-winning hit for the second time in the last two Cardinals victories. Pujols doubled home two runs to break a 1-1 tie in the eighth inning Wednesday after hitting a three-run homer in the 10th inning to break a tie on Sunday in Chicago.

CARDINALS 5, REDS 2: Randy Flores allowed the first run given up by the Cardinals' bullpen in the last 15 1/3 innings, but that run was not damaging because it came in the ninth inning after the Cardinals had broken a 1-1 tie with four runs in the eighth inning. Two of the runs were unearned as a result of an error by Reds shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and Albert Pujols took care of the other two with a double after he fouled off three 1-2 pitches.


--Manager Tony La Russa got at least a glimpse of the Cardinals' future when he watched LHP Mark Mulder, making his first visit to St. Louis in weeks, long-tossing in the outfield with RHP Chris Carpenter late Wednesday afternoon.

Both are on the disabled list, with the Cardinals hoping Carpenter, who has had elbow issues, will be able to come back within a week or 10 days rather than having to submit to surgery. As for Mulder, who has been at the Cardinals' spring training complex in Jupiter, Fla., as he continues to recover from rotator cuff surgery done last September, La Russa says he has hopes but no expectations.

"It's a long process," the manager said. "What's the accuracy of predicting when he can come back? Step by step. It's a laborious thing."

--As for RF Juan Encarnacion, who has been bothered by his surgically repaired left wrist, La Russa said he didn't expect Encarnacion to need the 20 days allotted to him on his minor league rehabilitation assignment. "I don't think you can force a guy to stay on rehab," La Russa said. "But he can't force himself into the lineup."

--The Cardinals, though struggling at 8-11, haven't made any roster moves yet, although RHP Brad Thompson, who has been scored on six of 11 outings, would seem to be in some jeopardy. Thompson had to be sent down last season when he struggled in relief.

La Russa said he suspected Thompson was pressing. "He knows he's got to be productive to stay in this league," La Russa said. "You can't hide from that, I don't care who it is. He can't keep struggling and keep his job. He's going to have to get it right."

--Through their first 20 games, the Cardinals have taken the first lead just five times and have given up 15 runs in the first inning. "That's a hard way to win," La Russa said. "We've got to reverse that some way.

"We acknowledge it. We've got to change it."

--SS David Eckstein, who ended a 1-for-12 dive with a flare single to start a fourth-run eighth inning Wednesday, committed his second error in two games and his fourth of the season. He had only six all of last season.

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