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Looper delivers well-timed gem

Looper delivers well-timed gem

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CINCINNATI -- Amidst a road trip with many lows, Braden Looper offered up something spectacular.

He was as good as Reds starter Johnny Cueto was bad, as controlled as Cueto was wild and as poised as the Cincinnati youngster was rattled. All of that, and he didn't second-guess a single pitch he threw until the last batter he faced.

Injuries or not, the Cardinals, after Looper's first career shutout and a 10-0 throttling of the Reds on Wednesday night, are winners of four straight.

"Not only did our team need it, but the bullpen needed it," Looper said. "And for me personally, it's an achievement I can look back on and always have. Obviously, it's not a no-hitter, but I only gave up three hits in a nine-inning shutout. That's pretty good, I'd say."

Very good, actually.

Looper needed just 98 pitches -- a plateau Cueto reached in the fifth inning -- to complete his gem. He struck out four, walked none and retired the first 11 and final 11 batters he faced.

"He's pitched really good games in his two years [as a starter], but that's as well as he's pitched against that lineup in this ballpark," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He made so many good pitches. It was very impressive. He deserves a ton of credit."

Looper's performance comes one night after slugger Albert Pujols aggravated a strained left calf and four nights after starting pitcher Adam Wainwright sprained his right middle finger. Both were sent to the 15-day disabled list, dealing major blows to the Cardinals.

"It's important for each guy to do [his] part," Looper said. "You can't try to do more and be something you're not. You've just got to do your part, go out there and lay it on the line. Whatever happens, happens. It's not like we're going to fold up shop because Albert and [Wainwright] aren't here."

And so far, there's been no reason to. St. Louis got a stellar performance from Triple-A Memphis callup Mitchell Boggs in a convincing victory on Tuesday. Through two games at homer-happy Great American Ball Park, the Cardinals have held the Reds to just two runs.

Offensively, Ryan Ludwick has homered himself out of a mini-slump that's plagued him throughout the road trip. Former Reds player Jason LaRue has hit his first home run of the season.

Rick Ankiel has shown no signs of rust since returning from a five-game absence in which he was nursing an infection in his right knee. Even Chris Duncan, who was optioned to Triple-A Memphis on May 30 to iron out struggles at the plate, is hitting.

"We've got some guys, who are the core of the club, who aren't participating in Albert and Wainwright, but the game still counts," La Russa said. "The guys are still playing and we have a chance to compete."

Looper (8-5) went to his fastball more often than not. Such could be a dangerous strategy in Cincinnati against a lineup with power hitters like Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn, but Looper's command kept the ball down in the zone and the Reds off the basepaths.

"I slowed everything down -- my whole pace," Looper said. "It's basically helped me get on top of the ball better and more consistently. To be honest with you, when [Javier] Valentin [the last batter in the ninth] walked up -- I know he's a good hitter -- was the first time in the game that I was second-guessing my pitch selection."

Looper didn't allow a hit until Griffey's two-out double in the fourth. He allowed two more hits in the sixth.

Ankiel keyed a monster first inning for St. Louis when he hit a three-run home run. It's Ankiel's second homer in as many games since returning to the lineup on Tuesday.

Cueto (5-6) struggled mightly in the loss, lasting just five innings and putting up a career-high eight walks. Three of the five Cardinals runners who scored in the first inning reached on walks.

St. Louis made it 5-0 in the first when LaRue's two-run home run plated Troy Glaus three batters later.

Ludwick made it 6-0 with an RBI double in the fourth and 7-0 with a solo home run off Danny Herrera in the seventh. It was Ludwick's second home run of the series and third in four games.

The Cardinals scored three more runs in the eighth. LaRue scored on Looper's double, Looper scored on a sacrifice and Brendan Ryan scored from second when Jay Bruce muffed Ludwick's fly ball to right.

"Looper was unbelievable," Ludwick said. "We had a great rhythm working. We kept coming in inning after inning ready to hit. We were fortunate to get some runs for [Looper] early, and that's all he needed. I can't give him enough credit."

Brandon Harris is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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