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Monday, April 21, 2008

Cards fall flat, drop out of first

It took the San Francisco Giants three innings to unravel Braden Looper and just a couple of weekends for them to do the same to the Cardinals.

The Giants tattooed Looper with six runs in a runaway third inning that carried them to an 8-2 victory Sunday at Busch Stadium. In his first loss of the season, Looper allowed seven runs, and he was excused after facing one batter in the fourth inning.

"I didn't get my job done, basically," said Looper (3-1). "I don't know what else to say. I basically stunk."

He hardly was alone.

Over the span of two series — a total of seven games — San Francisco clipped the once-soaring Cardinals by exploiting their rotation and exposing their flawed

offense. The Giants have one of the feeblest lineups in the league, yet with Sunday's win they became the first team to take a series from the Cardinals.

The lost weekend was the first time this season they had consecutive losses. That knocked them out of their mid-April perch in first place.

Deeper than the standings, San Francisco knocked some of the sheen off the Cardinals' gilded start. Following the brilliance of Tim Lincecum's seven shutout innings Saturday, lefty Jonathan Sanchez got only his second victory as a starter with five shutout innings Sunday. The Giants held the Cardinals scoreless over 17 consecutive innings this weekend.

Only a minor tremor in the ninth inning — keyed by Troy Glaus' run-scoring double and run scored — kept the Cardinals from being shut out at home on consecutive days for the first time since the other George Bush was president.

"Hopefully at some point we get that going all at the same time," said Glaus, who raised his average to .242 with a couple of doubles, the second of which ended his one-for-12 skid with runners in scoring position. "We've been able to get some key hits when we needed them. We've got some timely hitting, so far. The last couple days we haven't. If guys, top to bottom, we get going and everybody starts putting it together maybe we can go on a pretty good run."
April 20: Giants 8, Cards 2

Glaus, an impact bat in the heart of the order, has also been at the heart of the trouble.

On Sunday, Albert Pujols led off the fourth inning with a single, Ryan Ludwick — in his second audition at cleanup — followed with walk. Up came Glaus with a chance to chisel into the Giants' 8-0 lead. Sanchez fired a fastball that cut out of the zone and Glaus attempted to check his swing.

Instead, the pitch glanced off his bat. It dribbled toward third base, and Giants infielder Jose Castillo spun it into a rally-squelching double play.

It's been that kind of April.

Glaus' half-swing, double-play groundout was part of an 0-for-15 stretch for the Cardinals with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals went 17 2/3 innings and 67 batters between hits with a runner at second or third. Moreover, in the seven-game season series, which they won four games to three, the Giants struck the Cardinals out 50 times.

That included the first three batters Sanchez (1-1) faced Sunday. The lefty needed 71 pitches to get his first 11 outs and repeatedly tempted trouble. Giants manager Bruce Bochy said though Sanchez allowed two hits in five innings, "He was struggling — it wasn't that easy."

"If we would have stayed close, especially because he was making so many pitches, then we would have had a chance to win the game against him later or the bullpen," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "I think that six-run inning took a lot of starch out of us."

That six-run inning came after signs of early trouble. The Giants tagged Looper for two hits and three solidly struck fly-ball outs in the first inning. When Looper faced the top of the order a second time, the rout ensued. Fred Lewis and Castillo scooted base hits up the middle. Ray Durham and Bengie Molina followed with doubles. Aaron Rowand singled, and then rookie John Bowker homered for the third time in five games against the Cardinals.

The first six batters of the inning reached against Looper and scored off Looper. He got the last three batters of the lineup to end the inning. But when Looper came out for the fourth, Lewis singled and Looper left.

"I didn't miss the barrel very many times," Looper said. "That's for sure."

In each start this season, Looper has gone fewer innings into the game. Sunday's was his shortest outing as a starter since July of last season and the seven earned runs tied a high since the career reliever shifted to the rotation. It was a dud that served as a worthy decoy for the other imperfections slowing the Cardinals down from one of the best early-April dashes in the majors.

"It's only been a couple games," outfielder Skip Schumaker said. "I don't think anyone is worried. We're going to be fine."

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