09/20/2003 6:29 PM ET
Pujols lifts Cards, special fan
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS -- Albert Pujols made 24 teammates, his manager and coaches, nearly 45,000 paying fans -- and especially one little girl -- extremely happy on Saturday afternoon.
Pujols' walk-off homer against Dan Miceli in the 13th inning gave the Cardinals a 3-2 win over the Astros, helping to keep St. Louis' faint playoff hopes alive. Perhaps more important, it served as a gift to young Niki Cunningham, who asked Pujols before the game to hit a home run for her. It was Buddy Walk day at Busch Stadium, benefiting the Down Syndrome Association of Greater St. Louis, and Niki threw out an honorary first pitch as part of the event.
"A walk-off home run -- you're talking about a game-winning RBI," Pujols said. "The fans, that's what they come for. First of all, they come to see the game and have fun, and they want you to win. I think after sitting there for a while, it was pretty special to them.
"It's pretty crazy, but there's a little girl that always, on Down Syndrome day, every year she comes here and she asks me to hit a home run for her. She did it today again. That was the girl that threw the first pitch, and I hit the ball out of the park. [After the game], I was sitting at my locker, thinking, 'Is this for real?' Two years in a row she asked me for that, and I hit the ball out of the park. It's pretty special for me and my family, on Down Syndrome day, and for that little girl."
Pujols is an active proponent of the Down Syndrome Association, because his wife, Deidre, has a daughter with the disease. Pujols has adopted young Isabella.
The homer, which barely cleared the left-field wall at Busch, was Pujols' 43rd of the year, the fourth-highest single-season total in Cardinals franchise history. It was also his 114th, tying Ralph Kiner's all-time record for the most longballs in the first three years of a player's career.
"It's great to have a record," he said. "You're talking about records that were sitting there for a long time. It's a blast, man. I go out there day in and day out and try to do my best. It's not that I'm going out there to try to think about it or try to hit the ball out of the park. Whatever I can do to help my team out to win, that's what I want to do.
"Today, I was 0-for-4 [before the homer], and until my last at-bat right there, I was, like, 'I don't want to give up. I'm gonna go out there and try to get on base.' I didn't try to hit the ball out of the park. I just tried to put a good swing, and look what happened. That's what I try to do every day, day in and day out."
The Cards climbed back within five games of first-place Houston with six games remaining on the schedule. Any combination of three Cardinals losses and Astros wins would eliminate St. Louis from playoff contention.
Brett Tomko pitched a solid game for St. Louis but did not figure in the decision after allowing two runs on five hits in six innings. The Cardinals bullpen was even better, hurling six scoreless innings. Jason Simontacchi pitched the last two frames for the win in relief.
Tomko worked around a walk in the first and a one-out double in the second before getting into trouble in the third. Pitcher Tim Redding led off with a single and reached second base when Craig Biggio was safe on a sacrifice bunt attempt. Geoff Blum singled to center, loading the bases with no outs.
But with the middle of the order threatening, Tomko did a decent job of minimizing the damage. He struck out Jeff Bagwell for the first out before Jeff Kent sliced a two-run single to right to give Houston the lead. Lance Berkman struck out, Richard Hidalgo walked and Brad Ausmus struck out to end the inning.
"That's happened to me my whole career, those big innings," Tomko said. "But I have a little more confidence out there, like if I make the pitches I should be able to get out of this with minimal damage. ... I was in situations earlier in the year where I thought I might not last this inning. And today, even though I made a bad pitch to Kent and got the ball up a little bit, I felt like I was still in control, even with the bases loaded and nobody out. I felt like, 'I can get out of this right now.' "
St. Louis got a run back immediately. Tomko struck out but reached on a wild pitch. Fernando Vina singled, but two fly balls later, both runners were still on base. J.D. Drew singled up the middle to score Tomko and cut the Houston lead in half.
Tomko settled in after the third, meanwhile. He was perfect after the walk to Hidalgo, retiring the last 10 batters he faced. He was removed for a pinch-hitter in a series of moves that worked out perfectly.
Renteria smoked a double into the gap in right-center with one out in the sixth. After Chris Widger grounded out, manager Tony La Russa called on Orlando Palmeiro to pinch-hit for Tomko, leading Houston manager Jimy Williams to call on lefty Mike Gallo. La Russa removed Palmeiro in favor of Eduardo Perez, who hit a bouncer straight up the middle. Kent couldn't handle the ball, and Renteria came all the way around to score, tying the game.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.