Hot-hitting Ankiel leads Cardinals past Reds

Thursday, May 1, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- Rick Ankiel's big series helped the surprising Cardinals win a franchise-record 18 games this month.

Braden Looper worked six solid innings and Ankiel again supplied much of the offense with three hits and two RBIs to cap an 8-for-13 series, helping St. Louis hand Aaron Harang another tough-luck loss Wednesday with a 5-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

"We couldn't get him out," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "I heard he could hit as a pitcher pretty well, too. He hits bullets, he hits 'tweeners, he hits bloopers. Right now, he's their hottest guy."

Ankiel had a home run and five RBIs in the series, is 10-for-22 in the first six games of a nine-game homestand while raising his average to .291, and has the go-ahead RBI in six of St. Louis' victories. Before that, he had been in a 3-for-23 funk.

"I feel like I've seen great pitches lately," Ankiel said. "Maybe when you're not going good, you might go out of the zone. That's just the way I feel right now."

Ankiel's a common thread to past April excellence in St. Louis as the only player also to have been in the organization for two 17-win teams in 2000 and 2006, although he was recovering from knee surgery that interrupted his climb through the minor league system in '06.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, for whom Ankiel began his career as a hard-throwing 19-year-old left-hander in 1999, said Ankiel's timing at the plate had been just a bit off.

"He wasn't really getting beat at the plate, it was just getting the ball in the air too much," La Russa said. "It's on the barrel, just a couple of hairs different."

Aaron Miles had two RBIs and Jason Isringhausen earned his ninth save in 11 chances for the Cardinals, who last year needed 43 games to win No. 18.

"With the history of this franchise, for the '08 club to have some kind of mark you don't disregard it," La Russa said. "But you don't exaggerate it, either. If this is the last good month we have, nobody is going to be too happy with the '08 club."

A heavy early home schedule helped the Cardinals, who are 12-6 at 3-year-old Busch Stadium. They took two of three from the Reds and have won four of five overall.

The opening month also has been a good one for Looper (4-1), who allowed two runs and seven hits in six innings while throwing a career-high 114 pitches. Looper, who moved to the rotation last year after a long career as a closer and setup man, is 7-2 with a 2.88 ERA in 11 career first-month starts.

Harang (1-4) has worked at least six innings in each of his seven starts and has little to show for his 2.98 ERA because the Reds have totaled 23 runs in his outings. He allowed three runs on seven hits in six innings.

"I work my way out of jams and really bear down," Harang said. "I'm trying to keep the score low and give us a chance to win. I'm out there doing what I can do."

Edwin Encarnacion hit his team-leading seventh home run for the Reds, who are 3-5 since Walt Jocketty was named general manager. Jocketty was the Cardinals' GM for 13 seasons before this year.

Encarnacion homered for the first time in seven games leading off the second. Left fielder Chris Duncan just missed a leaping attempt in the corner as the ball went slightly under his glove and bounced off the top of the wall. Joey Votto followed with a double and scored on Ryan Freel's two-out infield hit.

The Cardinals needed a wild pitch by Harang to score a run in the second on three hits and a walk, then took a 3-2 lead in the third with four straight hits, including RBI singles by Miles and Ankiel.

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