Looper outpitched in Cardinals' loss
Playoff hopes fade with defeat at hands of division champs
CHICAGO -- Statistics can be twisted, tormented and manipulated in any number of ways. But they rarely tell an outright lie.
So while the numbers following Sunday's 5-1 loss to the Cubs tell an unpleasant story for the Cardinals, it's unfortunately a true story. They were a losing team on the road this year. And Braden Looper will finish with a losing record.
Both records come with plenty of "yes, buts" attached, but both will stand when the 2008 season is reviewed. It may be unfortunate, but it's inarguable.
"You get what you earn," said manager Tony La Russa. "You've got to finish it off, and we didn't finish it off."
Following a 9-3 win over the Reds at Great American Ball Park on Aug. 16, the Cardinals were 14 games over .500. They were right in the thick of the Wild Card hunt, and they had one of baseball's best road records at 37-28. Since that day, they have gone 10-19 overall -- 3-13 on the road -- and have fallen to the brink of elimination from the playoff chase.
And if there is a blueprint for that stretch, Sunday's game followed it perfectly. Looper pitched reasonably well -- well enough to win on some days -- but not brilliantly. The Cardinals' defense didn't convert a couple of outs that it probably should have. And the offense provided no margin of error for the pitchers or defenders.
The defeat left Looper with a 12-14 record on the year and only one start remaining. A year after he was held out of his final start to preserve an even-money record, he pitched much better but will have a worse mark to show for it. A won-lost record is hardly a fair way to evaluate a pitcher, but that doesn't mean a losing record is fun to carry into the winter.
"All I can do is get myself ready to pitch every time," Looper said. "Obviously, I want to win. Don't get me wrong. But I can't control what happens during the game. I just get myself physically and mentally ready to pitch every time, and do everything I can on the field. Obviously, I feel like I'm a lot better pitcher than 12-14, but right now that's where I'm at. So it's pretty frustrating."
Making it harder to swallow was the fact that Looper and the Cardinals were facing a watered-down lineup, more representative of the Iowa Cubs than of the division-champion Chicago Cubs.
A day after Chicago secured its second straight National League Central title, manager Lou Piniella trotted out a lineup that included regulars at only two positions. But one of them was starter Ryan Dempster, who quieted the St. Louis lineup over five innings.
Looper, meanwhile, was decent but not great, allowing four runs on nine hits over six innings. He struck out six against just one walk, and admittedly could have gotten more help from his defense. Two base hits in a two-run sixth squirted just out of the reach of infielders.
"You try not to let it have a cumulative effect," Looper said. "But it's hard not to, because we're losing the game. ... It's frustrating, because I want to win. I want to win just like everybody else. You go out there, and whether you pitch OK, you pitch good, or you pitch bad, it's the same outcome. So it's not fun."
The Cardinals hung a run on Dempster in the first, but after putting their first two runners of the game on second and third base, they likely should have had more. Looper bunted into a double play to end the second, and the Cardinals put two men on base in both the fifth and seventh, but they never broke through after the first and were held to fewer than three runs for the fifth time on a nine-game road trip.
"We just didn't have a whole lot of opportunities today," said Ryan Ludwick. "It's kind of been that way recently. ... It was a tough game for us offensively."
So they go home for one last week, trying to salvage some numbers that make the year look better than it looks at the moment. The elimination number for St. Louis stands at two, so it will take a near-miracle for the Cards to make the postseason.
"It became unfair here as we got to the last month," La Russa said. "We've been really going gung ho and overcoming a lot of stuff, but we're really limping to the finish line, and it kind of makes you angry."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.