Pujols turned from mild-mannered, .400-slugging Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk on Wednesday night, hitting his first two homers of the year and adding an RBI single in the Cardinals' 6-4 win over the Astros at Minute Maid Park. Before the game, Pujols and Astros pitcher Brandon Backe had a heated exchange on the field over Pujols' slide into home plate the night before.
"I kind of figured he was going to have a big day, from what was going on," said outfielder Skip Schumaker. "You don't want to kick a sleeping dog. He's a phenomenal player, and the last thing he needs is some sort of edge or fire. But I wouldn't bet against him any time."
Pujols had been doing everything but hitting for power through the Cardinals' first eight games. He entered Wednesday's game with a .320 batting average and an eye-catching .485 on-base percentage. He'd walked eight times against just two strikeouts. But the noted slugger wasn't slugging, with two extra-base hits and one RBI in the early going.
So much for those numbers.
He's now hitting .379/.526/.655 (average/on-base/slugging), and he no longer trails pitcher Brad Thompson in runs batted in. One huge game, and Pujols' numbers suddenly look like, well, Pujols' numbers. Two homers in nine games, that's right on schedule.
"I made some adjustments at the plate because of some things that I saw the last couple of games that I was doing here," Pujols said. "I started from St. Louis, the last game against Washington. I knew what I was doing wrong, and it's a good thing that I picked it up early."
For a while, it looked like the Cardinals might again win without needing any thunder from Pujols. St. Louis jumped all over Astros starter Chris Sampson, who has been fighting a case of the flu.
The first three Cardinals hitters all singled, including Pujols' RBI knock, and Troy Glaus added a run-scoring single as well. A pair of run-scoring hits from Rick Ankiel in the third and fifth stretched the lead to 4-0.
At that point, starter Braden Looper was cruising, but Looper seemed to fade in an instant in the sixth. Holding a 4-1 advantage, Looper gave up three straight hard hits, including a pair of doubles, as the lead was cut to a single run. Looper was relieved by Kyle McClellan, starting a fine night of work by the Cardinals' bullpen.
"It was getting to the point where you worry about him being able to finish," manager Tony La Russa said. "He was having trouble putting hitters away right there at the end. That can be a sign of fatigue. I just thought it was time to get him."
In the next half-inning, Pujols obliterated a pitch from Dave Borkowski, 417 feet to left field, to make it 5-3.
"It makes it a lot tougher, too, when you throw a ball right down the middle," Borkowski said. "He's a great hitter and you make a mistake, he makes you pay for it."
In typical Cards-Astros form, Houston again closed within a run, this time against Randy Flores. But Ryan Franklin kept it from getting any closer, mowing down the heart of the Astros' lineup in order.
He got Hunter Pence to fly out with two men in scoring position in the seventh, then induced three straight ground-ball outs from Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada in the eighth.
"That was probably the biggest [part of the game], right there," said Jason Isringhausen, who recorded his fifth save. "I just went out and did my job. Frankie did his job and then some. Those three guys had killed us all series. If somebody beat us, it was those guys. Frankie did a great job."
Pujols gave Isringhausen a little extra breathing room with his second home run, this one to right field off Oscar Villarreal in the ninth.
"The first one always feels good, but the second one was even better," Pujols said. "Coming in the ninth inning in a home run park -- a hitters' park -- getting another run to our closer was something that he could work with. It was great."
The Cardinals have won three straight series to begin the season, and they moved one-half game ahead of the Brewers for first place in the National League Central. They're 7-2, a season-best five games over .500.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.