PHILADELPHIA -- If the Cardinals want to get this desperate and improbable run to the finish line ahead of the Braves, they will need Albert Pujols to lead them. Sunday, he did just that.
Pujols homered on the first pitch he saw, jump-starting Chris Carpenter and the Redbirds to a 5-0 win over the Phillies. With Atlanta's loss, St. Louis is now 3 1/2 games back in the Wild Card race -- a long shot but still alive thanks in large part to Pujols. He's hitting .410 in September, with four homers and 16 RBIs in 16 games. Since Pujols, who fractured his left wrist in June, returned from the disabled list on July 6, the Cardinals are 16-3 when he homers.
"We've seen that for 11 years," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He got us off zero quickly and got everybody excited."
"That was awesome to see," said Allen Craig, who had his second career multi-homer game. "He's done it so many times. For him to set the tone offensively was huge for us. He's fun to watch."
Pujols is attemping to extend his own Major League record of batting .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs to an 11th consecutive season. He entered play on Sunday just 3-for-20 (.150) in his career and riding an 0-for-13 streak against Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels, but Pujols launched the first pitch he saw deep to left for a two-run homer.
"That's what it took to win, because they didn't score," Pujols said. "Against that lineup and facing one of the best in the game from the left side, we came out off the bat and scored a couple runs -- and Carp cruised the rest of the game."
Carpenter, a career 21-10 in September and 2-0 this month, pitched eight shutout innings, struck out five and allowed eight hits and one walk. He's 9-2 with a 3.01 ERA in his last 17 starts.
"I was ahead in the count," Carpenter said. "My stuff was good, and I was commanding the ball down in the strike zone. When guys want to swing, if you make pitches, you can get quick outs."
Craig tacked on two runs in the sixth with a two-run homer. Ordered to bunt, he missed his first two attempts, then launched a curveball into the seats in left-center.
"I consider myself a good bunter," Craig said. "I just didn't do it, which is frustrating. At that point, I'm just trying to get him over, put the ball in play, be productive and not strike out. It just kind of happened."
Craig followed that with another homer in the eighth. He's plainly carving out a spot in this lineup; La Russa has played him wherever possible to get his bat in the order. Craig has played all three outfield positions, plus first, second and third.
"He's hit every place he's played," La Russa said. "And he's gotten big hits. We're trying to get him in the lineup."
While the situation is still dire for the Cardinals, they have won nine of their past 11 to stay in it.
"We flip the page on this game, and we try to win the series," Pujols said.
"Common sense says you just don't let anything distract you," La Russa said. "We give it our best shot. We've just got to win a bunch of games, so all we care about is trying to win the game that's in front of us. If we don't win a bunch of games, everything else is irrelevant."
Kevin Roberts is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.