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Cubs’ Looper will stick or go back to family

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Braden Looper throws against ArizonDiamondbacks during fourth inning their spring training baseball game Salt River Fields

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Braden Looper throws against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the fourth inning of their spring training baseball game at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick near Scottsdale, Ariz., Sunday, March 13, 2011. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

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Updated: July 1, 2011 12:16AM

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If finding the right place at the right time means anything, Braden Looper might be the sleeper pick of Cubs camp.

Of course, pitching performance will mean a lot more, and the non-roster Looper has at least a couple of fairly sizeable obstacles to leapfrog in the next two weeks if he’s going to win a starting job.

But don’t count the lanky veteran out — especially with a possible bullpen spot also in play — not after his strongest outing of the spring Sunday against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

And not after he won 14 games on an injured knee for the Milwaukee Brewers the last time he pitched, in 2009, before having it surgically repaired and coming to camp last month in top condition.

And definitely not after the way he found a job opportunity with the only team he allowed his agent to deal with, even after sitting out a year because he couldn’t find a similar fit for his family.

“Baseball’s extremely important to me, but my family’s more important,’’ said Looper, 36, who earned the victory in Sunday’s split-squad game against the Diamondbacks with 3

2/3 strong innings.

“Baseball’s a tough life, and I’ve got three kids, and I choose not to be away from my family. I just couldn’t do it anymore. They’ve done it for me for so long, I felt like it was time for me to make sure they had a stable environment and they were at home, and that’s why this is perfect.’’

A native Oklahoman, Looper ­relocated to the Chicago area, where his wife is from. And after making more than $25 million in his career, when Milwaukee bought out his 2010 ­option, he decided to start ­calling some very specific shots about where he was willing to play.

“It’s like you come here, you give it a shot, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go home,’’ he said.

No sign of that happening ­anytime soon.

“He threw the ball as well as has all spring,’’ said bench coach Pat Listach, the acting manager for Sunday’s game against the D-backs. “He’s keeping himself right in it with an outing like this.’’

A former closer with 28 or more saves in three consecutive years who produced 12 or more wins as a starter his last three seasons, Looper’s versatility plays in his favor. But for now, it’s all about trying to win one of two rotation spots, he says, “And then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.’’

So far, Randy Wells has taken a clear lead in the fight for one of the openings; top gun Andrew Cashner has pitched well enough to confirm the club’s faith in him making the transition from the bullpen; and $11.5 million Carlos Silva looked sharp again in his last start, on Saturday.

But if Looper has been largely overlooked by fans and under­reported by media, those within the game are paying attention.

Major-league scouts watching the Cubs the last two days and looking for possible available pitching seemed more interested in what Looper’s status was than whether the fat-salaried Silva could be had — not that Looper would go anywhere but home if it didn’t work out with the Cubs.

And the Cubs are just as serious about giving him a chance. In fact, Looper threw for Cubs evaluators last June when they were looking to add pitching, but they couldn’t guarantee him a big-league shot, so the talks were tabled.

The only thing Cubs general manager Jim Hendry needed to know this time around was that Looper wanted to pitch badly enough to make a hard run at trying to help the team.

“Oh, yeah, he wants to pitch,’’ said pitching coach Mark Riggins, who has known Looper since the pitcher was a first-round pick by St. Louis in 1996 and Riggins was an instructor in the Cardinals’ system. “I know the type of person he is, the competitor that he is. He’s good for this camp, not alone trying to make the club.’’

But Looper didn’t sign up to be some kind of special spring training coach.

“I’m going to have to pitch well, but they’re giving me a shot,’’ he said. “And I feel better now than I did that whole [14-win] season, so to me it’s like a new lease on life.’’

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