CINCINNATI -- Asked Saturday afternoon about how Albert Pujols has looked since returning from the disabled list, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said, "He's himself; that's all you need to say."Indeed. About three hours later, Pujols smashed a three-run home run in the fifth inning, lifting St. Louis past Cincinnati, 4-1, in front of 40,204 fans at Great American Ball Park. It was Pujols' 20th homer of the season, his second in as many nights, and backed the razor-sharp Chris Carpenter. After Skip Schumaker reached on a fielder's choice and Jon Jay laid down a two-out bunt single, Pujols pulled a low-and-away, 2-1 pitch from Bronson Arroyo into the left-field seats, giving the Cards a 3-1 edge. Carpenter made it stand with eight innings of one-run ball, fanning seven to improve his career record against the Reds to 14-4. "It's not always a mistake when a guy hits you out, especially Albert Pujols," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "It was a changeup, down. He waited on it and went down and got it. It might have been below the knees." Pujols, who came back from a fractured left wrist on July 6, has returned to form. In his last four games, dating back to July 9, Pujols is 8-for-17 with three home runs, including a blast on Friday night, when his two-run shot put the Cards ahead, 5-4. Much was made about Pujols' struggles through the first two months of the season, but since June, he has hit .315 with 11 homers. "It's a long season, man, a long season," he said. "I've said it before: It doesn't matter how you start, whether it's good or bad. At the end of the year, hopefully, you get 600 at-bats, 700 plate appearances." Pujols' homer was all Carpenter needed. The right-hander continued a trend of dominating the Reds that stretches to when he joined the Cardinals in 2004. Carpenter also lasted eight innings when he last took the mound against Cincinnati on July 4, a 1-0 win. In the past two seasons, Carpenter is 7-1 against the Reds, with the only stumble coming in his last start at GABP on May 15. "Any time you win here, that's a nice win," said Carpenter. "We did some good things offensively, defensively; I made some pitches when I had to." Cincinnati jumped ahead, 1-0, in the third inning on a single by Joey Votto that scored Drew Stubbs, but the damage could have been worse. With one out, Stubbs walked, and Edgar Renteria reached on a bang-bang infield single that prompted an argument by La Russa. After Votto's single, Carpenter short-hopped a throw to second on Brandon Phillips' chopper, loading the bases for Cincinnati. Carpenter escaped further damage, however, when he induced an inning-ending double play from Jay Bruce. Carpenter ran into trouble in three other innings, but each time he walked off the mound unscathed. In the first, Cincinnati put runners on first and second with one out. Carpenter struck out Phillips and got Bruce to ground out. In the fifth, the Reds had a runner on second with one out. Carpenter got Renteria to fly out, and Stubbs was doubled off. And in the eighth, Cincinnati was handed runners on second and third when Daniel Descalso and Nick Punto committed fielding errors. Carpenter struck out Chris Heisey on a 3-2 curveball -- his 116th, and final, pitch. Before the inning, La Russa asked Carpenter if he had enough in the tank to continue. "I felt great; I really did, going into it," Carpenter said. "I was making pitches. I tried to slow things down to make sure that I was not out there just heaving, that I was making pitches and concentrating on what I needed to do, so I didn't give up that big hit." After Carpenter escaped the eighth, closer Fernando Salas came in to shut the door. Salas, who blew a save Friday night, allowed a hit but struck out Renteria to end the game and secure his 17th save.
Paired with the Pirates' loss in Houston, the Cardinals took sole possession of first place in the National League Central.
Tyler Jett is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.