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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Looper's solid start is salvaged

Russ Springer has spent the better part of the past month saving newcomer Kyle McClellan from any breaches of big-league etiquette.

On Friday, the rookie returned the favor.

Rescuing Braden Looper's win from a disastrous relief effort, McClellan stunted a no-outs, bases-loaded mess mostly of Springer's making. In the seventh inning, Washington sent nine batters to the plate and whittled the Cardinals' lead down to a run. But the Nationals couldn't budge the tying run past third against McClellan. The rookie righthander was a stable leg for the wobbly bullpen, protecting what became a 5-4 victory at Busch Stadium.
Cards 5, Nat's 4

"He doesn't have any room for error," said closer Jason Isringhausen, who struck out three of the five batters he faced for a second save. "Not just for a rookie — you're asking a lot of a 12-year veteran if you put him in the game with the bases loaded and nobody out. Anything can go wrong, any little thing. He didn't give up the lead. That's what matters."
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Looper (1-0), in his first start of the season, held Washington to one run and five hits in six innings. As he grounded the Nationals, the Cardinals riddled Odalis Perez for five runs. Rick Ankiel's two-run, first-inning homer gave the Cardinals an instant lead, and Yadier Molina's run in the fourth and run-scoring single in the fifth provided needed cushion for uneasy relief.

Springer, perhaps still smarting from a 32-pitch ninth inning Wednesday, gave up a hit to every batter he faced. Cristian Guzman, who hasn't had a 10-homer season since 2001, drilled a solo shot to start the seventh. Lastings Milledge and Ryan Zimmerman followed. Ron Villone relieved Springer and walked his only batter, Nick Johnson.

Naturally, the next call went to the rookie.

Every day Springer has been giving McClellan lessons in ballpark behavior. Don't hold a news conference in another player's locker, for example. What to tip. Who to tip. Et cetera. Earlier this week, Springer pointed to a pack of reporters lurking around Ryan Franklin's locker, waiting to talk to the righthander about his botched appearance. See, Springer told the Florissant native, someday the hometown glow is going to wear off and the do-or-die gravity of relief take hold.

In his first two major-league appearances, McClellan stymied the heart of one of the league's best lineups, including twice retiring Matt Holliday with less than a three-run lead. In his third big-league appearance, things got really tough.

"His composure," manager Tony La Russa said, "has been amazing."

Said Isringhausen: "He kind of has to be ready. That's the role he has. That's what we need. Better to find out he can handle it now than later. Here you go, kid, let's see if he can do it."

What the rookie did was strike out the first batter he faced, freezing Austin Kearns with a cut fastball for strike 3. He walked Paul Lo Duca to bring in Washington's third run. The next batter, Ronnie Belliard, seared a line drive that went into and out of third baseman Troy Glaus' glove to score another run and put the tying run at third.

McClellan struck out the next batter, Felipe Lopez, and got pinch-hitter Willie Harris to ground out to end the inning, bases still loaded.

"You can't get caught up in the bases loaded, nobody out, I have to keep everybody from scoring," McClellan said. "It's just one hitter at a time. If I get each hitter out it will take care of itself."

Helped by two Ankiel catches in center field — one at the track, the other at the wall — Franklin pitched a perfect eighth and Isringhausen allowed the tying run to reach second before nailing down the save with consecutive strikeouts. McClellan and the relievers who followed kept the bullpen from undoing all of Looper's superb work.

Looper spent the past couple of weeks in relative anonymity, toiling on the back fields of the Cardinals' spring training complex and even lingering in Florida when the team flew north. His final two starts of spring were in scrimmages against Cardinals minor-leaguers.

It may have been just what he needed.

Early in spring, Looper stumbled because, he explained later, he was thinking about the innings ahead, not the batter at hand. By throwing against hitters he didn't know, or need to know, he stopped trying to set up and went with his best. He continued that tack Friday, siding with his sinker when it was working instead of forcing his cut fastball into action.

"I was a lot more aggressive," Looper said. "I wasn't thinking first-pitch cutter to lefties and setting up my cutter for the next time (against a righthanded hitter). Of the 80 pitches I threw in a spring game, 25 were going to be cutters. I didn't throw many (Friday) because I didn't have to. My sinker was really good."

Of the 18 outs Looper got, only one came outside of the infield. The Nationals sent 13 batters to the plate before getting a ball to the outfield grass. The one run Washington scored on Looper came on a groundout.

Looper's six innings continued what's been an unexpected surge by the unheralded rotation. With ace Adam Wainwright yet to throw an official inning, the starters have an 0.83 ERA over their first 22 2/3 innings of work. Include the three innings Wainwright lost to Monday's rainout and the starters have allowed just three runs in 25 2/3 innings.

"There's some signs there we may pitch well," said La Russa, whose team is where it never was last season — two games over .500. "That's all we are? Seems like it's more than that."

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