Then Albert Pujols happened.
The reigning National League Most Valuable Player obliterated a first-pitch fastball from Roy Oswalt for a fifth-inning grand slam, breaking open a close game and sending the Cardinals on their way to an 11-2 thrashing of the Astros. The slugger added a second homer two innings later, finishing with a career-high-tying seven RBIs in his 24th Major League multi-homer game. St. Louis won its third straight game and improved to 4-2 on the young season.
Pujols is 9-for-21 on the season, with three home runs, nine RBIs, five walks and exactly one strikeout in six games.
"I am just blown away by that guy," said Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright. "I think he's the best hitter of all time. I think there's never been a better hitter than him. I know I didn't see them all, but I just don't think there could be. I just think he's the best."
Pujols announced his intentions even before the fifth. In the first inning, he crushed a ball just foul and scorched another ball into a line-drive double play. He popped up in the fourth inning before beginning his one-man mashing.
Joe Thurston led off the fifth with a double, took third on a bunt and scored on David Freese's pinch-double. Skip Schumaker walked and Colby Rasmus singled to load the bases in a 2-0 game.
Oswalt considered walking Pujols, even though it would have brought home a run. He probably should have. His first pitch was a 93-mph fastball on the inside edge of the plate. It was about thigh-high but inside enough that it was very tough to hit. For anyone, that is, except Pujols. The slugger absolutely destroyed the pitch, drilling it 431 feet on a line to left field. The ball hit off of the "Big Mac Land" sign at the base of the third deck.
"The guy's a competitor," Pujols said of Oswalt. "He's one of the best pitchers in the game. I think you need to go out there and be prepared, and hopefully he makes a mistake and you'll be ready and take advantage."
The thing is, it wasn't really that much of a mistake. Oswalt said he had intended to get the pitch higher, but it was not the sort of offering that screams "hit me." Pujols did, nonetheless.
"It's a ball that nine times out of 10 is a ground ball to short or third for a double play, or maybe it sneaks through," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "The way [Pujols] keeps his hands inside, it's amazing."
The runs all but ensured that Wainwright would pick up his first win of the season, though he lasted only five innings. He handed the ball to rookie reliever Jason Motte, who rebounded from two rough outings to pitch a scoreless sixth. Dennys Reyes kept Houston at bay in the seventh, and in the bottom of that inning, Pujols and the Cardinals made the game a full-fledged blowout.
Schumaker and Rasmus both singled to open the frame, bringing up Pujols to face left-hander Wesley Wright. Pujols got ahead, 2-0, before Wright worked back to an even count -- getting Pujols to swing and miss at a slider. But Wright made the mistake of throwing the same pitch twice in a row, and given a second chance, Pujols smoked it.
Three hundred and seventy feet later, Pujols had his second homer and his fifth, sixth and seventh RBIs. And the game was resolved beyond any doubt.
"He's the best hitter in the game, and he continues to do things like that that are amazing," said Astros first baseman Lance Berkman. "It really doesn't surprise me. I don't think anything he did would surprise me. If he homered in 10 straight at-bats, it wouldn't surprise me. He's that good."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less