Pujols' record homer lifts Cards

Pujols' record homer lifts Cards

ST. LOUIS -- Just call him Mr. April. When it comes to opening-month power, Albert Pujols is now officially at the top of the list.

Pujols set a Major League record for homers in April on Saturday, and long ball No. 14 came in typically clutch fashion. With the Cardinals and Nationals locked in a tie, Pujols opened the bottom of the eighth with an opposite-field drive off Jon Rauch that cleared the wall in right field and lifted St. Louis to a 2-1 victory.

The 14th homer by Pujols moved him past Ken Griffey Jr. and Luis Gonzalez, who each had a 13-homer April rampage. After hitting No. 13 on Friday in a blowout loss, Pujols had emphasized that his homers are only meaningful to him when they come in the context of a win. The script was therefore perfect for Pujols when he stepped up in the eighth.

"I told you guys I don't play for records, I play to win games," Pujols said. "It definitely felt good today to hit it, and at the same time to win a game. That's the way you want it."

Pujols ran the count to 2-1 before showing that he can take the ball out of the park in any direction. While many of his April homers have been pulled inside the foul pole in left, the record-breaker was a case of Pujols staying within himself and going with the pitch to the opposite field.

"It's always a thrill to see positive history," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He was just trying to get something started and the ball carried out."

Pujols now has 32 RBIs, which equals the April club record set by Mark McGwire in 1998. The Cardinals first baseman can shoot for that RBI mark on Sunday when he tries to add to what has been a remarkable month.

"He's obviously a phenomenal player, the best in the game," said Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter, who was sharp again while allowing only one run through seven innings. "Some guys don't hit 14 homers in a year, never mind a month."

For a few shaky moments in the ninth, Cardinals fans had to wonder whether Pujols' record-breaking homer would hold up. After getting the first two Washington hitters, closer Jason Isringhausen walked three in a row to bring up Nick Johnson.

Johnson didn't wait around to see if Isringhausen could or would throw strikes. He swung at the first pitch and hit a little dribbler back to Isringhausen, who short-armed his toss to Pujols and turned an easy play into a difficult one. But Pujols picked the ball out of the dirt to save the Cardinals in a different way.

Why did Johnson swing at the first pitch after watching Isringhausen walk three in a row?

"I was trying to be aggressive," Johnson said. "I went after it too hard."

With two outs in the ninth, Isringhausen respected pinch-hitter Daryle Ward's power and walked him while pitching carefully. The same held true with Alfonso Soriano, who laid off some good pitches just off the plate. With two on, Isringhausen lost location and walked Jose Vidro.

"I lost it with Vidro all together," Isringhausen said. "I tried to aim the ball."

In a make-or-break save sequence, Isringhausen regrouped and came back with a good cut fastball that Johnson weakly put into play.

"I made it interesting, but it's a zero on the board," Isringhausen said.

The Cardinals (16-8) have established a franchise record with their 16 April wins. Pujols likes that record best of all.

"We have another month after tomorrow, and hopefully we'll get 16 more wins," Pujols said.

The Cardinals broke on top in the first with an unearned run. After Jose Guillen dropped a routine fly to right by Pujols, St. Louis wound up getting a sacrifice fly from Scott Spiezio. Guillen tied it with his homer in the fourth, and then Carpenter and Livan Hernandez battled on even terms through the seventh. After Braden Looper came on to deliver a perfect inning, it was Pujols to the rescue once more in April.

"Albert is determined to get better every day," Carpenter said. "I don't know how much better he can get. It's just fun to be on his team."

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