Looper sharp as Cards sweep Bucs

Looper sharp as Cards sweep Bucs

ST. LOUIS -- Exactas like this turn ordinary Joes into big spenders. Braden Looper, converted relief pitcher, is tied for the National League lead in wins. Propelling Looper to his sixth and most recent win, Yadier Molina hit in his 15th straight game and is the only .300 hitter in the Cardinals lineup.

Looper's six strong innings and Molina's two RBIs helped the Redbirds win their third straight, 3-1, over the Pirates on Thursday. Aaron Miles also drove in a run for St. Louis, which completed its first series sweep since April 9-11, and its second of the season.

Looper led the Cards to their first home sweep of 2007 by allowing a run on three hits, striking out two and walking two. He moved into a tie with nine other pitchers for the National League lead in wins, while dropping his ERA to 3.10. Even Looper himself would have had a hard time envisioning such a scene back in March.

"I probably would have taken it," he laughed.

Molina and Miles provided the big hits on what was a big day for the bottom half of the Cardinals batting order. No. 5 hitter Scott Rolen singled and drew two walks, and sixth-place batter So Taguchi had a pair of base hits and a key sacrifice bunt. Molina, batting seventh, extended his hitting streak to 15 games with his RBI double in the second, and he added a sacrifice fly in the eighth for an insurance run.

A lifetime .238 hitter before this year, Molina now sports a line of .304/.364/.383 (batting average/on-base/slugging) in 2007.

"There's nobody in the National League that's playing better baseball than our catcher, at that position," said manager Tony La Russa. "He did catch a one-run game over nine innings, and swung the bat real well."

Miles tallied his third three-hit game in May batting in the No. 8 hole, and even Looper made an offensive contribution when he walked in the fourth.

"We've actually won quite a few games this year because guys in the bottom half of the lineup have been tough outs," La Russa said. "That's not unusual for us. But [if] you want to win a lot of games, you get your core guys and then you mix those guys in."

With one out in the second, Taguchi singled off Tom Gorzelanny, who had shut the Cards down twice earlier this year. Molina doubled to left to make it 1-0, and Miles' single doubled the lead. David Eckstein doubled to make it second-and-third, but Ryan Ludwick grounded out to end the threat.

Still, Looper was grateful for the lead, and he made it stand up.

"Once we got the two runs, for me that was huge," he said. "I felt like I was able to come after hitters a little more. I don't want to say you relax, but at least you know if you give up a wind-blown solo home run, you're not going to lose. So it definitely makes it easier when you score runs. You need to score to win, so it's good to have them on the board early."

Both teams had trouble driving in runners once they got them on base. The Cardinals left the bases loaded in the sixth and stranded six runners in scoring position. However, they added one critical run against reliever Brian Rogers without even getting a base hit in the eighth. Rolen walked, stole second, took third on Taguchi's bunt and scored on Molina's sac fly.

"I just wanted something out over [the plate], to drive," Molina said. "He threw me a slider, cutter, and I made a pretty good swing and drove it that way."

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, missed out on a bases-loaded chance when Jose Bautista grounded out against Tyler Johnson to end the seventh. Four Cardinals relievers combined to pitch three shutout innings behind Looper.

Looper permitted a one-out double in the first inning, but worked around it and wasn't touched for the next four frames. He didn't allow another base hit until Bautista's leadoff homer in the sixth. In 10 starts this year, Looper has allowed two or fewer runs seven times. He has eight quality starts.

"I was happy with the way I pitched," he said. "I feel like I'm getting better every time out there."

St. Louis passed Pittsburgh for sole possession of fourth place in the National League Central division. The Cardinals trail the first-place Brewers, who had Thursday off, by 7 1/2 games.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.