08/10/2003 7:36 PM ET
Three homers trump triple play
Matheny, Perez and Pujols each hit solo homers
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS -- Entering Sunday night, 10 unassisted triple plays had been turned in the history of Major League Baseball. Yet on a night when the total went to 11 thanks to Rafael Furcal, Albert Pujols knocked the amazing feat to secondary status.
With two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game, Pujols crushed a 1-0 pitch from John Smoltz into the visitors bullpen for a sensational, 3-2 Cardinals win over the Braves.
"He just threw his pitch, a slider, and he didn't throw it for a strike," Pujols said. "So he didn't want to get 2-0, and he threw me a good pitch down the middle to handle."
Pujols' homer, which extended his hitting streak to 24 games, came two pitches after Eduardo Perez's solo shot tied the contest and chased starter Horacio Ramirez. It allowed the Cardinals to take two out of three from the Braves over the weekend, remaining within two games of the first-place Astros in the National League Central.
"That's one of those 'wow' wins," said manager Tony La Russa. "Every time you watch Woody (Williams) you go 'wow.' Then you watch Eduardo tie it up and you go 'wow, wow.' Then Smoltz comes in and you think, 'Man, I wonder how long we're gonna play.' And Albert does what he does, and it's beyond wow."
St. Louis struggled all night against Ramirez, managing a single run on four hits before Perez's long ball. But Perez, one of the Cardinals' best lefty-killers, ripped a 1-1 pitch from the rookie left-hander into the home bullpen to tie the game at two.
Braves manager Bobby Cox went straight to his closer, Smoltz -- arguably the most dominating reliever in the game. Pujols watched one pitch, and on the next he smashed his 31st homer of the season to put St. Louis ahead. It was just the second home run, and sixth earned run of any kind, against Smoltz all season.
"I don't think it really matters who Albert faces," Perez said. "He's one of the top three hitters in the league, and you might even say he's the top hitter in the league. As far as I'm concerned, it really doesn't matter with him."
"I tried to blow it by him, obviously," Smoltz said. "It didn't work."
But earlier in the game there was something even rarer than Smoltz's stumble. Furcal turned the first unassisted triple play the Majors since May 29, 2000, and only the 11th ever in a regular-season game.
Mike Matheny led off the bottom of the fifth inning with a single. He reached second safely on Orlando Palmeiro's sacrifice bunt attempt when Ramirez tried to throw him out rather than go to first. On a 1-1 pitch, Williams hit a hard liner to the left side as the runners took off. Furcal leapt into the air, snagged the ball, tagged second base and tagged Palmeiro.
"It's an aggressive move," said Matheny. "Woody put a good swing on it. He was just playing the exact spot he needed to be. We've seen some aggressive things get us going and that was just a case where it could have done just that."
La Russa stood by his decision to send the runners, but acknowledged that it wasn't an unassailable decision.
"More guts than brains," he said. "I've been accused of that many times."
Williams, who leads the Cardinals with 14 wins, came away with a no-decision despite a fine outing. He allowed two runs -- both driven in by Gary Sheffield -- on eight hits over seven innings. Williams struck out four and walked three.
The rookie Ramirez matched the veteran right-hander, though. Until Perez went deep, Matheny's solo homer was the only blemish on an otherwise sparkling performance. Only twice did a Cardinals batter come to the plate with a runner in scoring position. But Ramirez's 90th pitch, a fastball up in the zone, ended his night.
"I like lefties," Perez said. "That's the bottom line. That's what's kept me up here in the big leagues -- the lefties. So every time I face a lefty I'm excited. It's what I'm supposed to do."
Matheny staked Williams to an early lead with his fifth homer of the year, a solo shot that landed in the visitors bullpen. But it was St. Louis' only base hit in the first four innings. Sheffield tied it up with a laser beam of a fourth-inning homer into the seats in left. His sac fly to center in the fifth put the Braves ahead.
"They gave me a lead, and I got silly and pulled off a fastball, and my nemesis (Sheffield) crushed it," Williams said. "I made some good pitches, but all in all my location has got to get better. I felt strong tonight but that will only get you so far."
Cal Eldred pitched a hitless eighth for the win, and Jason Isringhausen hurled a 1-2-3 ninth for his 11th save. The Cardinals improved to 9-19 in one-run games this season as they won their first series against the Braves since 2001.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.