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Pujols' prowess gives Cards confidence

Pujols' prowess gives Cards confidence

ST. LOUIS -- It's sometimes said that a baseball team has a "puncher's chance" in a series due to a star pitcher or two. The 2006 Cardinals have that and then some -- a puncher's chance due to ace Chris Carpenter, as well as a "slugger's chance" because of the best hitter in baseball.

Be it the regular season or the playoffs, Albert Pujols turns unwinnable games into wins. It's an impact that none but the greatest sluggers have. Pujols is one of the greatest.

"We can compete with anybody," said Pujols, whose Cardinals open the National League Division Series on Tuesday at San Diego against the Padres. "When you're out there playing in the playoffs, anything can happen. Whoever gets hot, that's who gets to the World Series."

Carpenter, meanwhile, is the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner and the owner of the third-best ERA in the league this year. He won a pair of playoff starts last year and is at least the equal to any other NL club's No. 1.

The combination makes the Cardinals dangerous against any opponent. Their 83-78 record is far from overwhelming, but two game-changing stars make them a handful.

It seems the Cardinals' unofficial motto going into this postseason is "anything can happen." Their two stars make that "anything" more likely to happen.

"Every season is different," said probable Game 2 starter Jeff Suppan. "We have the ups and downs every year. I think we learned a lot about each other with what we had to go through, but we're here now. We made it. Now we've just got to get ready, enjoy this moment right here and get ready for the postseason. Anything can happen."

Last season, that same randomness -- plus some great starting pitching -- tripped up the Cardinals. In each of the past five times St. Louis has gone to the postseason, it has lost to a team with a worse regular-season record.

Maybe this time around they'll do the tripping up. A team that had three losing streaks of seven games or more will try to redeem a frustrating regular season with a big postseason.

"I just don't think we ever really caught stride," said starter Jeff Weaver. "We have all the pieces to make things happen. We won games when it counted. We won games that we needed to. And I think that's what we have. We all trust that when it comes down to crunch time we're going to come through."

If they do come through, Pujols and Carpenter are sure to be a big part of it.

About new Busch Stadium

ST. LOUIS -- For 81 games this season, the Cardinals were arguably the NL's best team. Playing their inaugural season at Busch Stadium III, the Redbirds finished with a 49-31 home record, a mark only bested by the Mets (50-31) and nearly matched by the Dodgers (49-32).

The pitching was far better at home, posting a 3.93 ERA, third-best in the National League. Several key pitchers, including Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan, were outstanding at home. Carpenter, the team's ace, was the Majors' best home pitcher, posting an 8-4 record and 1.81 ERA. Jeff Suppan, the Redbirds' No. 2 starter, registered a 7-2 mark and 3.32 ERA at Busch.

Offensively, the team didn't perform as well as it did in the old park. It ranked in the middle of the pack in multiple offensive categories, including runs, batting average and homers.

Compared to Busch Stadium II, the new park is a little bigger down the lines and in the power alleys, measuring 335 in the corners and 375 in the gaps. Center field is an even 400 feet.

The park, built similarly to several of the newer stadiums, is far more open that Busch Stadium II, providing a view of the Gateway Arch and the St. Louis skyline beyond the outfield walls. The team has sold out every game, routinely eclipsing 43,000-44,000 fans a night.

Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com.

If No. 5 is looming before the end of the game, and the score is within reach, the Redbirds aren't finished yet. Never was that more evident than on Wednesday, Sept. 27 -- the night Pujols saved the Cardinals' season.

Trailing in the eighth inning, and facing the prospect of an eighth straight loss, the Cardinals scrapped for two baserunners to get to Pujols with two outs. The slugger ripped a three-run, 429-foot blast that delivered a win, kept the team's lead in the Central Division at 1 1/2 games and basically righted the ship.

"[It was] the most huge of the huge ones he's had, because he's had a bunch of them," said manager Tony La Russa.

And, of course, Pujols doesn't just do it in the regular season. He produced one of the most famous playoff homers in recent years when he silenced Minute Maid Park last October. Pujols' Game 5 home run in the NL Championship Series forced a sixth game and kept old Busch Stadium alive for another day.

"I just thank God that he's using me big time to come through for my team," said Pujols. "I just go out there and try to get a good pitch to hit. If they give me a good pitch to hit, I do damage. If they don't, I take my walk."

As for Carpenter, he's so critical to the Cards' hopes that they held him out of the last game of the regular season -- even with the division not yet secured. The right-hander will start twice if the Division Series goes four games.

Carpenter stuffed the Padres in last year's Division Series, and he'll be looking to do it again -- even though the clubs have changed positions, with the Padres considered significant favorites this time around.

"Everybody here knows that the playoffs are a strange thing," said Carpenter, "and anything can happen."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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