ST. LOUIS -- Following another frustrating game from three-time National League Most Valuable Player Albert Pujols on Wednesday night, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa pointedly noted that he "wouldn't bet against" his superstar. He might as well have added his ace Chris Carpenter for a very nice exacta.
The Cardinals' two pillars, both of whom had scuffled against the Brewers in 2011, came up very big to help St. Louis shake off an early deficit and beat the Brewers, 5-2, at Busch Stadium on Thursday night. The Redbirds pulled back within four games of first-place Milwaukee in the National League Central and staved off what would have been a devastating sweep by their division rivals.
Had the Cardinals lost, they would have trailed the Brewers by six games with only six head-to-head meetings remaining and 44 games left on the schedule in total. Instead, they remained very much alive thanks to their stars -- and to some outstanding infield defense.
"I wouldn't bet against [Pujols] or Carp," La Russa said Thursday. "Career-wise, here, they're so clutch. And we needed to get one here."
Carpenter surrendered two runs in the top of the first but kept a clean sheet after that as he evened his record at 8-8, lasting eight strong innings despite permitting 10 base hits. It's the first time since before his first decision that Carpenter has had a .500 or better record in 2011. The record has never been a fair or accurate representation of how Carpenter has pitched -- except perhaps for his 0-2 mark against Milwaukee.
In two previous starts against the Brewers in '11, Carpenter had been reached for 10 runs in 11 innings. That included a a bizarre defeat against Milwaukee 10 days earlier, in which he breezed for four innings before crumbling in the fifth. On Thursday, it was quite the opposite. Carpenter started a bit slow but allowed nothing more.
Three hits added up to two runs in the first, and from there, the game belonged to Carpenter -- with plenty of help from his infield and his offense. St. Louis tied the game in the bottom of the first, meaning that Carpenter never again pitched with a deficit.
He permitted a baserunner in every inning, but no extra-base hits after the first. And the reconfigured St. Louis infield turned four double plays behind him. Carpenter issued three walks and struck out four, and he required only two outfield putouts all night.
"They got us the first two nights, and we needed this one," Carpenter said. "I gave up that two early, which was not a good start. But we come back and get it right back for us, start over again, which was key."
Meanwhile, the previously quiet Cardinals big guns got going to back Carpenter. Pujols homered among four base hits, driving in two runs and scoring two. Lance Berkman, also kept in check by Milwaukee this season, added a pair of singles, driving in a run. The two sluggers had managed virtually nothing against Milwaukee in 11 previous meetings between the clubs this year.
"You want to play well at all times," Berkman said, "but you certainly want to play well ... you want to play as good as you possibly can in these big games. And to this point, I haven't played very well in terms of my overall production and numbers. We can sit here and discuss why that's happened till tomorrow. But the bottom line is we haven't gotten it done, and we did tonight and we won the game."
Pujols, meanwhile, factored in each of the three innings in which the Cardinals scored. He had nearly as many hits on Thursday as he had in the team's previous 11 games against Milwaukee (five).
"You can't hold a potential Triple Crown guy down," said the Brewers' Prince Fielder. "You can contain him, but at some point he's going to feel good and beat you. That's what he does."
And Pujols did it against the very tough Yovani Gallardo, who entered the game on quite a roll.
"He [Gallardo] is having a great season," Pujols said. "Just like they got to Carp this year twice, it happens. Sometimes you wish you could understand how things happen, but it's part of the game. He was throwing 95 [mph] still. He probably left a couple of pitches where we could handle it, but besides that, we didn't do that much damage against him."
Table-setters Rafael Furcal and Jon Jay also got in on the act. It was Furcal's first-inning leadoff home run that instantly changed the tone of the game after Milwaukee's runs in the top of the first. And Jay singled, stole a base and scored twice from the No. 2 spot in the order.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.