ST. LOUIS -- A patchwork rotation was supposed to be the St. Louis Cardinals' weakness. Instead, no-name starters have worked four straight stingy starts while stand-in ace Adam Wainwright has yet to pitch in a game that counted.
Braden Looper pitched six sharp innings and Rick Ankiel's two-run home run provided a first-inning cushion in a 5-4 victory over the Washington Nationals on Friday night.
"I'm just trying to go out there and do my thing, do my job," Looper said. "Everybody here is throwing the ball well. All you can do is pitch and do your job."
The surprising Cardinals are 3-1, two games above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2006 season, and handed the Nationals their second straight loss after a 3-0 start. Despite beginning the year with Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Joel Pineiro and Matt Clement on the 15-day disabled list, Cardinals starters have allowed only two earned runs in 22 2/3 innings. Wainwright makes his debut on Saturday after his opening-day start was postponed by rain.
"I'm just very impressed with the way our starters are going about it," manager Tony La Russa said. "There's some signs here that we may pitch well."
Cristian Guzman homered in a three-run seventh that narrowed the gap to a run and Ryan Zimmerman flied out to the center field wall off Ryan Franklin to end the eighth. Looper was in the clubhouse fretting.
"I came inside and started doing my exercises, and screaming at the TV a little bit," Looper said. "Stuff like that."
Jason Isringhausen allowed a hit and a walk but struck out three in the ninth for his second save. He battled back from 3-0 to catch Felipe Lopez on a called third strike, a cutter at the knees, to end it.
"It was a good pitch," Lopez said. "I was just trying to look for a ball to drive. He threw a 3-2 whatever it was and that was it."
All five of the Nationals' games have been either tied or a 1-run game entering the ninth.
"We can't call this some kind of trend," manager Manny Acta said. "We're just five games into the season."
Looper (1-0), beginning his second season as a starter after making 572 appearances as a closer or setup man, allowed a run and five hits in six innings and left leading 5-1. Looper pitched in a minor league game on March 25, his final spring start, rather than give the Nationals a sneak peek.
"I don't know if it helped or hurt, but why face them if you're going to pitch against them early in the season?" Looper said. "It's a comfort level.
"For me, it's not letting them see me and what my game plan's going to be like so close to starting against them."
Brian Barton, making his first career start after being taken in the Rule 5 draft, doubled to start the bottom of the first off Odalis Perez, and Ankiel lined a first-pitch fastball an estimated 425 feet over the right-field wall for his second homer. Looper and ninth-place hitter Aaron Miles each had an RBI in the fourth and Yadier Molina had a run-scoring single in the fifth.
Perez (0-1) allowed five runs and eight hits in four-plus innings and is 3-5 with an 8.87 ERA for his career against the Cardinals. Albert Pujols hit his 300th career double off the center-field wall in the first and walked against the left-hander, making him 14-for-21 with five homers against Perez.
Cardinals RHP Joel Pineiro threw five innings and 68 pitches in an extended spring training game Thursday. He's scheduled to throw a rehab start on Tuesday and could rejoin the rotation after that. ... The Nationals were 5-1 against the Cardinals last season and have won the last three series. ... LF Chris Duncan (left hamstring strain) has not been cleared and missed his third straight game. ... Cardinals SS Cesar Izturis had his first error of the season erased. A replay showed Ryan Spilborghs' slow bouncer up the middle in the first inning Thursday deflected off P Brad Thompson's glove. ... The Nationals placed closer Chad Cordero (shoulder tendinitis) on the 15-day disabled list after the game and recalled LHP John Lannan from Triple-A Columbus. Lannan will start Sunday's series finale.