Pujols' third homer wins it for Cards

Pujols' trifecta rescues Cardinals

ST. LOUIS -- The Major League career of Albert Pujols has been pure storybook stuff, and the reigning National League Most Valuable Player added one of his more amazing chapters to date on Easter Sunday 2006.

Pujols simply wouldn't allow the Cardinals to lose on a day when new Busch Stadium was treated to the kind of heroic performance that St. Louis legends of the past occasionally offered on special days at Busch I and Busch II. Three home runs by Pujols, including a two-run walk-off blast in the ninth inning, gave the Cards an 8-7 victory over Cincinnati and left the St. Louis players grasping for superlatives to describe their dynamic first baseman.

"Twenty or 30 years from now, you're probably going to say you've watched one of the top five players to ever play this game," Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein said.

Eckstein has had the great fortune to play with 2004 American League MVP Vladimir Guerrero and Pujols the last two years. The common denominator?

"A superstar has that rare ability to put an entire ballclub on his back and say, 'Come ride with me.' That's what the Angels had with Vladimir in '04 and it's what we have with Albert," Eckstein said. "He just put us on his back today and took us to victory."

Pujols did a happy dance while rounding the bases after the coup de grace homer, but quickly regained a business-like attitude as he addressed the media after a storied day.

"When you get a walk-off homer, you get to do whatever you want," Pujols said. "You need to be excited about it. You don't get too many of those, so you need to enjoy them when they come."

But as soon as he retreated to the clubhouse, Pujols was thinking ahead.

Pujols reminded everyone it's April and there are 150 games left. There's no time to dwell on Sunday's three-homer rampage, just as there was no time last October to dwell on his game-winning homer off Brad Lidge to force Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.

"Everybody knows how I feel," Pujols said. "It's about winning games. In the offseason, maybe I can think about a game like this. But we have a game in Pittsburgh [on Monday]. Hopefully, I'll hit three more and forget about [Sunday]."

The three-homer day for Pujols was the second of his career. He also hit three on July 20, 2004, at Chicago. Pujols, who now has eight homers through the Cards' 7-5 start, has six career walk-off homers.

Perhaps no Cardinal enjoyed Pujols' towering walk-off against David Weathers more than St. Louis right fielder Juan Encarnacion. With the Cards leading, 6-5, in the eighth, Felipe Lopez hit a liner right at Encarnacion with Ryan Freel breaking off first. But with a double-play opportunity awaiting him, Encarnacion muffed the ball. A two-run double by Rich Aurilia put Cincinnati ahead, 7-6.

But it was Pujols to the rescue in the ninth, with an assist from Monday's starting pitcher Jason Marquis, who was used as a pinch-hitter because manager Tony La Russa's bench was thin.

Marquis started the inning with a single to center, setting the stage for Pujols' dramatics.

"I was just trying to put the bat on the ball and make something happen with the big guy coming up behind me," Marquis said.

From Marquis' viewpoint at first base, there was no doubt that Pujols' majestic 441-foot drive would stay inside the foul pole.

"Albert was at home plate seeing if it would hook, but it looked like it was going to stay the whole way," Marquis said. "The distance was definitely there."

The home run show started in the fifth inning when Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns went back-to-back off Mark Mulder, only to see Pujols and Scott Rolen do the same against Bronson Arroyo in the bottom of the inning.

The Cards were up, 5-4, when Pujols hit his second of the day in the seventh, but St. Louis would need one more from the main man to make the postgame flight to Pittsburgh a happy one.

La Russa could only marvel at the Charlie Lau swing that Pujols has perfected to keep drives down the line in fair territory.

"That same ball hooks [foul] for the first 75 years," La Russa said. "But staying inside ... That's what he has got. He can hit the ball down the line as straight as an arrow. That's the stroke that Charlie developed."

Even before Pujols saved the day from a win-loss perspective, La Russa loved the grit that his club showed in the series finale.

After Cincinnati went ahead in the eighth on Aurilia's two-run double, the Cardinals got three hits and a walk, but they couldn't score in the eighth because of a botched hit-and-run attempt which caused Encarnacion to be thrown out at second.

"We kept pushing it," La Russa said. "For us to do that tells me all I need to know about the '06 Cardinals. We're going to be fine."

As long as the Cardinals have the indomitable Pujols as a trump card, few could argue with that assessment.

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