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Monday, June 30, 2008

LaRue, Pujols power Redbirds to victory

Catcher, designated hitter team up for two homers, six RBIs
KANSAS CITY -- In the first inning on Sunday, Royals outfielder David DeJesus barrelled toward home plate, trying to score on Jose Guillen's single to left field. DeJesus lowered his right shoulder and plowed into Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue, who had caught Skip Schumaker's laser-beam throw.

The impact revealed plenty about LaRue, who relishes such confrontations. The aftermath, even more.

LaRue held on to the ball and tagged DeJesus out, helping Braden Looper escape from the inning without allowing a run. An inning later, LaRue hit a 399-foot home run to right field, sending the Cardinals on their way to a 9-6 win over the Royals in the final game of a grueling nine-game Interleague road trip. LaRue also added a two-run triple for his finest game as a Cardinal.

"My goodness," marveled manager Tony La Russa. "What more can you do? Big hits, big collision at the plate, and he got another couple balls that he hit well that were outs. He just had a terrific day."

La Russa speculated that the collision got LaRue going, and the catcher didn't deny it.

"It's part of the game," LaRue said. "It's my job to block the plate. In a situation like that, I'm going to take the plate away if I know I have a chance to get the guy out."

Looper struggled on a difficult day for pitchers, allowing six hits, four walks and three runs -- two earned -- in 3 1/3 innings. The manager had a quick hook with his starter, seeing that Looper simply wasn't sharp. The stiff wind out to right field didn't help any, but Looper had far from his best game.

"It was tough for a lot of different reasons," Looper said. "[The weather conditions] were part of it, but it's still not an excuse. When the team gives you a lead like that, you've got to be able to pitch six or seven innings. I didn't do that today, so I'm just glad the guys could pick me up."

Chris Perez relieved Looper and escaped from a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fourth, keeping a two-run Cardinals lead intact. Overall, St. Louis' bullpen bent but didn't break. Perez was credited with the win, though he ran into trouble in his second inning. Jason Isringhausen struck out four in 1 2/3 innings but also permitted a run. The story for the club's relievers was consistent, with impressive escapes followed by difficult second innings.

LaRue got the Cardinals on the board in the second, launching his wind-aided, opposite-field home run into the Royals' bullpen. It was his third homer of the year, all of them coming in the past 19 days.

After Kansas City cut a five-run lead down to two, LaRue lashed a line drive into center field with two on in the fifth. The ball hooked hard to center fielder Joey Gathright's right and rolled all the way to the wall for a two-run triple.

The two extra-base hits just continued a hot streak for LaRue, who has been raking for more than a month and a half. On the morning of May 11, he was batting .067 with no extra-base hits. Since then, he's batting .333 and slugging .579.

"I haven't changed anything from Day 1," he said. "Going into it, when, obviously, I didn't have much of an average, it never bothered me. I never did anything different, never changed anything. My goal is to go up and have a good at-bat."

Albert Pujols added a double and a two-run homer for the Cardinals. Pujols came about a foot from a second home run as he kept up a career-long trend of hitting well in Kansas City.

The Cardinals went 5-4 on a trip to three American League cities, winning two of their three series. They've now enjoyed three consecutive winning trips, and have endured just one losing trip all season.

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