MILWAUKEE -- With just under four weeks remaining in the season, the Cardinals have life. They're still not in a great spot, but they're alive.
St. Louis' playoff hopes remain faint, but after a series in which those hopes could have been extinguished entirely, the Cards will gladly take it. They did what they needed to over three games at Miller Park, completing a sweep with an 8-4 win on Thursday afternoon.
A mammoth day from Albert Pujols keyed the big win, with significant help from the reconfigured Cardinals bullpen. Octavio Dotel steadied a listing ship with 2 2/3 critical innings, including the two biggest outs of the game in the fourth inning.
Pujols homered twice, including a third-inning grand slam that was the game's turning point, among four base hits. He drove in five runs, scored three and generally ended a season's worth of frustration at the hands of Milwaukee pitching.
Starting pitcher Brandon Dickson, a controversial choice to start with ace Chris Carpenter receiving an extra day of rest, survived 3 1/3 innings before giving way to an absolutely airtight Cardinals bullpen.
The win pulled the Cardinals within 7 1/2 games of the first-place Brewers in the National League Central with 25 games to play. The two teams play three more games this year, next Monday through Wednesday at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals equaled a season best with their fourth straight win and have won six out of seven since being swept at home by the Dodgers from Aug. 22-24.
"It changes something for us," manager Tony La Russa said, "because we've got a little something going. ... Have at it, man. We'll see what happens.
"I think our chance is to see if we can put together a real good combination of wins and see where we are. That's our chance. Right now, it's still 7 1/2. But if you can win for a while ..."
The Cardinals got back to nine games over .500, equaling the furthest above even they've been since mid-June. Meanwhile Milwaukee was swept at home for the first time all year.
For a second straight day, Rafael Furcal got things rolling for the Redbirds with a leadoff home run. And in another echo of Wednesday night's win, Pujols followed with a solo shot of his own two batters later -- this one a staggering 462 feet to straightaway left field.
Unlike Wednesday, however, the Cards didn't give any of those runs back in the bottom of the first. And when Pujols hit the 12th slam of his career in the third inning, a shot to right, they were in control of the game.
They did the damage against Yovani Gallardo, a challenging right-hander who has at times been brilliant against St. Louis.
"He is tough," Pujols said. "He's tough against the league, and you knew that it wasn't going to be easy. To score six runs in the first two innings gave Dickson a little cushion to go out there and take a little pressure off him. He made some mistakes, and we took advantage. That's the reality."
With the six-run lead, it appeared the Cards would cruise. And eventually they did, but some rough seas still were in front of them. Dickson ran into trouble in the bottom of the third, allowing homers to Jonathan Lucroy and Corey Hart. When he allowed two baserunners in the fourth, he was lifted for Dotel with the tying run at the plate.
Dotel escaped the jam with a pair of strikeouts, and from there, the game was just about over. Dotel rolled through 2 2/3 shutout innings. Fernando Salas allowed a solo homer but escaped his two innings otherwise without incident, and Jason Motte tossed the ninth to complete another strong game for the remade St. Louis bullpen.
"I thought we swung the bat early, and then once Dotel came in, he really threw the ball well," said Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. "We didn't touch him. Then, we swung OK against Salas and Motte. But Dotel was the guy that shut us down."
Pujols added two more singles over the second half of the game, and scored in the fifth on Matt Holliday's 200th career home run. His four hits equaled his previous total in 31 at-bats at Miller Park this year. Overall, Pujols was 10-for-53 (.189) with two home runs against Milwaukee this year before Thursday.
"I don't think about that, man," said Pujols. "I come out there to try to have good quality at-bats, and if it happens, great. If it doesn't, there's nothing I can do. As long as I go out there and give my 100 percent and get myself ready for the game, that's it. Nobody's going to feel sorry for [me]."
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.