ST. LOUIS (AP) -Three outings into his new career as a starting pitcher, there's no looking back for Braden Looper.
A pressing need in the rotation prompted the St. Louis Cardinals to convert the former closer into a starter after 572 major league relief appearances and 103 saves. Looper likes everything about his new role: the worry-free days between starts, the chance to expand his repertoire, the realization that this is where he can make a difference for the World Series champions.
``I didn't do this to make 10 starts and then go back to the bullpen,'' Looper said. ``This is what I want to do now and I'm extremely comfortable doing it. And, I enjoy it a lot.''
So far, pitching coach Dave Duncan's brainstorm is a success. Looper gets his next chance to build on that Friday in San Francisco.
``He's got real talent and he's going about it right,'' manager Tony La Russa said. ``If you're just taking one for the team, you don't have the same kind of motivation.''
La Russa stops short of calling it a permanent move, pointing out that a club's needs constantly change.
``We plan to leave him alone,'' the manager said. ``But who knows what's going to be thrown at you?
``The No. 1 thing you want to do with every player is what benefits the team the most.''
Positive results have helped shed the notion that this is an experiment. Looper is 2-1 with a 2.37 ERA, earning the Cardinals' only win on their recent 1-3 homestand. He has quickly become comfortable with the endurance aspect of starting by working six or more innings in all three outings.
His latest start also was evidence that he can succeed with less than perfect command. After giving up two runs and three hits to Milwaukee in the first inning Sunday, Looper allowed only two harmless hits and no more runs over his last five innings.
This, despite starting off 10 straight batters with a ball between the second and fifth and throwing strike one to only eight of 25 batters overall. That puts hitters at an advantage, yet Looper found ways to retire them.
One of the ways was to rely on his defense. He struck out only three while benefiting from left fielder Chris Duncan's leaping catch at the track to rob Brewers pitcher Ben Sheets, and another nice running catch by right fielder Preston Wilson.
``That's going to be my M.O. all year,'' Looper said. ``I'm not a guy who's going to strike out a ton of guys, but when we have a defense as good as we have I probably should let them do their job.''
The Brewers didn't get any spring previews of Looper because they train in Arizona and the Cardinals' base is in Jupiter, Fla. They noticed a pronounced difference in the former closer.
``He's not throwing as hard as he used to, and he uses that to his advantage,'' Bill Hall said. ``He was very effective.''
To scuffle, overcoming early trouble and a perceived tight strike zone, and yet still succeed was a nice confidence boost for Looper.
``It's real gratifying,'' he said. ``It was just a battle the whole time. I think you have to learn to go out there without your best stuff and without your best command and without your best whatever-it-may-be.
``I was able to do that.''
There's no sense of satisfaction, given the short track record. Before this season, Looper's longest major league outing was only three innings. His last starting experience was back in 1997, his first professional season after the Cardinals made him a first-round draft pick.
``I'm definitely pleased with the way things have gone, but I'm not going to dwell on it,'' Looper said. ``It's three games and I've got 30 more starts to go, and I'm just going to continue to do it.''

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