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08/20/08 1:40 AM ET

Looper dominant, though no production

Starter allows just three hits; Cards keep spot in Wild Card race

ST. LOUIS -- Braden Looper is quickly falling into the category of "tough-luck" pitcher. The right-hander produced another strong start Tuesday but ended up with nothing to show for it.

Despite allowing just three hits and one run through seven innings, Looper found an "L" next to his name in the box score as the Cardinals fell 4-1 to Pittsburgh at Busch Stadium.

Looper has allowed nine earned runs over his last six starts for a 2.03 ERA. But he's just 2-3 over that span, as the Cardinals offense has developed a hibernation tendency lately when Looper takes the mound.

As good as Looper was, Pittsburgh's Ian Snell was just a little bit better.

The Pirates got a run in the first and made it stand up until the ninth. Not the offensive scenario St. Louis manager Tony La Russa was looking for to open a seven-game homestand.

"One run in seven innings -- he definitely did his part," La Russa said of Looper.

After Ryan Doumit's run-scoring double in the first, the Pirates simply held the Cardinals at arm's length until the ninth.

"I don't want to take anything away from [Snell], but we didn't have a good offensive day," La Russa said. "Part of it was him, but part of it was us."

The Cardinals fans had visions of some late Albert Pujols magic in the eighth. With the tying run at first, Pujols battled reliever Denny Bautista before blasting a drive toward the gap in right-center. But speedy center fielder Nyjer Morgan tracked it down to preserve the 1-0 lead.

The Pirates padded that lead with three runs in the ninth as the Cardinals' defense unraveled after Doumit and Adam LaRoche opened the inning with consecutive singles. The second Pittsburgh run scored when catcher Yadier Molina dropped a throw at the plate which would have resulted in a forceout.

"When you get to that point where you're trying to choke off a run with the bases loaded and nobody out, freaky stuff happens," La Russa said.

The Cardinals (70-58) finally scored in the ninth on Adam Kennedy's RBI single, and had the bases loaded when T.J. Beam fanned Brian Barton to end the game.

That left Looper to ponder what might have been.

"I made one bad pitch to the wrong guy," Looper said. "It's a game we had a chance to win as a team. If I make one more pitch or a guy gets one more hit, it's a different story. It's unfortunate."

The Pirates improved to 5-3 at Busch Stadium and clinched their first winning record in St. Louis since 1999.

"I feel good, but it just seems like it hasn't been quite good enough," Looper said. "I have to continue to work and continue to go out there and put up zeros."

The Cardinals have now lost eight of their last 11 home games and are 7-7 at Busch Stadium since the All-Star break.

The saving grace for St. Louis on Tuesday was that National League Wild Card leader Milwaukee also lost. The Cardinals have to hope the offense will pick up the pace on Wednesday with starter Todd Wellemeyer on the mound.

"Our at-bats against Snell could have been better," La Russa said.

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