The young and rising Tampa Bay Rays used an outstanding start by a homegrown pitcher, a relentless barrage of base hits from their young and homegrown hitters and some exceptional defense in sending the Cardinals to a 3-1 loss in the opener of a three-game Interleague series Friday.
St. Louis has lost eight out of 10 games after climbing to a season-best 10 games over .500 last week. The Cardinals now stand three games behind the first-place Cubs in the National League Central. Adding to the frustration, Albert Pujols saw his streak end at 42 consecutive games reaching base by a hit or a walk.
"I don't think we're playing our best right now," said starter Braden Looper (5-3), "but all I can really speak for is myself, and I just didn't make enough good pitches today. A few more here and there and it could have been a lot closer game than it was."
Andy Sonnanstine, funky motion and all, put on a pitching clinic against a team that has struggled to score runs recently. Sonnanstine needed 98 pitches to get through eight innings, and 76 of those were strikes.
"I don't really know what to say," said Adam Kennedy, who went 0-for-4. "He pitched a great game. He really did. I'd love to play behind that guy. He pitched a great game. Definitely not overpowering, but who cares about that?"
Tampa Bay left a runner on base in every inning against Looper and two rookie relievers. Because of the incessant drone of hits and loud outs, the scoring margin felt wider than it actually was for much of the game.
"I definitely wasn't at my best," Looper said. "And it could have gotten out of control very fast. So I guess that would be the one positive I would take out of it. But still, I've got to be better than that if I want to win."
Sonnanstine and former Cardinal Troy Percival also contributed to the sense that the Cardinals were rarely actually in the game. Only once all night did the Cardinals get a runner to scoring position with fewer than two outs. And on that one occasion, with runners on first and second and no outs in the third, Sonnanstine induced a double-play grounder from Skip Schumaker.
Sonnanstine kept St. Louis off the scoreboard until the eighth inning, when a Chris Duncan solo homer broke up the shutout bid. Duncan had a pair of hits on the night, as did Troy Glaus, but it was otherwise a quiet offensive night for St. Louis.
The biggest highlight came in the seventh inning, when rookie Chris Perez toed the rubber for the first time in a big league game. Perez, called up from Triple-A Memphis on Friday afternoon, pitched a near-perfect frame. He didn't allow a run, a walk or a hit, though B.J. Upton reached on an error by Pujols. Perez struck out Evan Longoria to end the sixth.
Perez, believed to be St. Louis' closer of the future, even lit up the Busch Stadium radar gun with a 100-mph reading on one pitch. Whether the reading was accurate or not, he held his own despite a tough assignment -- facing the heart of a good lineup.
"I didn't look at it that way," Perez said. "You can't psyche yourself out before you go out there. But I was just telling myself to keep the ball down -- make good pitches -- and I was able to do that."
The closest the Cardinals came to making the game interesting was the ninth -- an inning where they didn't get a base hit. Facing Percival, both Glaus and Kennedy drilled line drives to center field. Each time, though, Upton chased the balls down -- making difficult plays look easy. Yadier Molina added a well-hit ball to left, but it was all fruitless.
"[Percival] is having a heck of a season, but you can't ask for three better at-bats," Manager Tony La Russa said. "I know one of their assets is the range of their outfield, and it showed. The center fielder put on a good show tonight."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.