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Cardinals' savior no surprise

Cardinals' savior no surprise

ST. LOUIS -- In the St. Louis Cardinals' darkest hour, there was still one man who could alter what was looking more and more like a nightmare finish.

To the surprise of no one who has been paying attention since 2001, that man was Albert Pujols.

There were other major contributors for the Redbirds on Wednesday night. Anthony Reyes gave St. Louis a very solid starting performance and a chance to win. Adam Wainwright pitched the ninth and gave this club its first save since closer Jason Isringhausen went out for hip surgery.

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But it was Pujols, with a three-run home run in the eighth, who turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 victory over the San Diego Padres. That one swing turned a game and might have even salvaged a season for the Cardinals.

You got a hint about the possibility of this development hours before the game began, from the opposition. The Cardinals were taking batting practice, and Padres manager Bruce Bochy was watching from the visitors' dugout. Pujols was lacing balls all over the yard, as usual, and Bochy marveled: "He squares up every ball."

Somebody mentioned that Pujols had not been able to square up every ball against Cla Meredith, the Padres' rookie relief-pitching sensation. Meredith, who had given up just four runs in 43 appearances, had struck out Pujols in the seventh inning of Monday night's game.

"Yeah," Bochy said, "but [Pujols] had never seen him before."

Pujols saw Meredith again on Wednesday night. The second time was the charm, the winning three-run homer on a 1-0 pitch. Meredith had struck out Pujols on a sinker. This time, the sinker didn't sink enough.

Bochy said that he would have walked Pujols intentionally and loaded the bases for the next hitter, Scott Spiezio, "if I didn't have Meredith. That's the confidence I have in the kid."

Meredith said he appreciated the trust, "but I'd feel better if the guy didn't hit it 650 feet off me."

Pujols ends up having that effect on a lot of pitchers. For his part, Pujols was gracious about Meredith, saying: "I can see why people around the league have problems with him. He's tough, he's real tough."

Cla Meredith has been close to untouchable this season. But Albert Pujols has been hitting greatness personified for six seasons. This year alone, he has 25 game-winning hits for the Cardinals. In fact, 19 of his 47 home runs this season have accounted for game-winning RBIs. He is a game-winning hit waiting to happen.

But the timing of this game-winning home run puts it in an entirely new, season-saving category. Or, as manager Tony La Russa put it: "This is the most huge of the huge ones he's hit."

There may be no overstating how large this home run and this victory were for the Cardinals. Their seven-game lead in the National League Central had nearly evaporated, shrinking to 1 1/2 games over the Houston Astros. The Astros won their eighth straight on Wednesday night. Without this victory, the Cards would have been looking at an eyelash of a lead and a world of negative momentum working against them.

But with Albert Pujols on board, changing a game the way very few can, life once again looked a lot brighter from the Cardinals' perspective. The Cardinals needed a victory of any sort. But this sort of victory, with the late-inning drama and Pujols' home run, was like a prescription written to cure the ill effects of seven straight defeats.

"It was as exciting a game as we've been in all year," Wainwright said. "Our MVP, Albert, comes up huge for us there, hits a home run exactly when we needed it.

"It was definitely time, time for us to get a win. It was much-needed, much-needed. One and a half sounds a lot better than one-half, so we needed that game real bad. No matter what Houston did, we needed to worry about what we were doing and win that game. And we did."

So the Cardinals left Busch Stadium on Wednesday night with a new lease on Central Division and postseason life. They no longer had a losing streak weighing upon them day after day. What they had instead was a lead that was at least larger than a whisker and the promise of nothing but home games between here and the finish.

And they had the knowledge that when they desperately needed a run -- or two, or three -- that they had one of the game's true greats, Albert Pujols, still there for them; ready, willing and able to deliver.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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