Looper erratic early as Cards fall
Right-hander allows eight runs; Barton hits first career homer
ST. LOUIS -- For most of the year, Braden Looper has narrowly escaped big innings. On Tuesday, however, the big inning caught up with him -- twice -- and the Cardinals fell to the Astros, 8-2.
Looper did not bring his best stuff against a potent Houston offense, and the Astros took advantage from the get-go. Entering as the Cardinals' leader in wins, Looper fell to 6-4 on the year and gave up eight runs, seven earned.
"I didn't get the job done, didn't give us a chance from the beginning," Looper said. "Guys haven't even taken the field, haven't even got to hit yet, and it was 4-0. ... I never even gave us a chance."
Manager Tony La Russa said Looper's final line -- 4 1/3 innings, nine hits and three walks on 101 pitches -- hid some good things the right-hander did. Nonetheless, it was undeniably a struggle for Looper.
"It looked like he did a good job getting ahead," La Russa said. "And then the finishing pitch wasn't as good, and they capitalized."
Looper opened the game giving up back-to-back singles to Michael Bourn and Kaz Matsui. Miguel Tejada flied out to center field, and Rick Ankiel took a shot at throwing out Bourn at third base. However, Bourn barely beat the throw, which also allowed Matsui to advance to second.
That sequence all but forced Looper to pitch around the torrid Lance Berkman, who walked. Carlos Lee followed with a base hit to center field. Two runs scored, and Lee advanced to second when Ankiel's attempt to throw out Matsui at the plate sailed roughly 15 feet over Yadier Molina's head.
"I just had a bad transfer and sometimes you can make up for it with a good throw, but the footwork was already there," said Ankiel. "I didn't have a good grip on it and tried to make the throw anyway, but it just didn't happen."
Following Ankiel's throw, the Cardinals continued to unravel early. It took Looper 33 pitches to get out of the first inning, and he gave up two more runs after the error. Molina ended the inning when he caught J.R. Towles napping at first base and picked him off. The pickoff was all that kept the Astros from batting around in the inning.
After adding a run in the third inning, the Astros finished Looper off in the fifth. Tejada hit a two-run homer, and after Houston loaded the bases, manager La Russa gave his starter the hook.
On the ensuing batter, Russ Springer walked in the Astros' final run for an 8-1 deficit that was more than enough breathing room for Shawn Chacon.
Chacon mowed down the Cardinals over seven innings, striking out seven batters in the process. The Cardinals accumulated seven hits off Chacon, but they were far too spread out to generate a late-inning comeback.
"I felt like he [Chacon] made some good pitches but he gave us some pitches to hit, too," Ankiel said.
Already in the midst of a slump, Adam Kennedy struggled mightily against Houston's pitching. Kennedy went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and is hitting a lowly .167 (9-for-54) in May -- a dramatic drop from his .314 performance in April. Skip Schumaker, Chris Duncan and Molina all went 0-for-4 from the plate as well.
Albert Pujols, on the other hand, continued his stellar play at the plate, going 4-for-4 with a solo home run in the fourth inning. He finished a triple short of the cycle. Brian Barton also went deep for the first time of his career when he hit a solo shot off Chacon in the fifth.
With the loss, the Cardinals dropped their second in a row and are now 9-18 in games where they have given up four or more runs. The Cardinals and Astros are now tied for second place in the National League Central, 1 1/2 games behind the Cubs.
Lee Hurwitz is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.