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07/31/08 12:05 AM ET

Pujols lifts Cards in Carp's return

Slugger's double gives St. Louis third straight win in Atlanta

ATLANTA -- For the first time in a long time, the Cardinals' bullpen might actually welcome a narrow lead in the late innings. But the club's offense continues not to oblige.

For the third night in a row, the Cardinals tacked on multiple runs in the late innings on Wednesday, turning a tight game into a 7-2 rout of the Braves. The night was most notable for Chris Carpenter's return from the disabled list following Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, but it nearly heralded another return as well.

Had the Cards' 5-2 lead stayed unchanged in the top of the ninth, Jason Isringhausen would have gotten a shot at his first save since May 5. Instead, the Redbirds kept up another uncharacteristic late offensive assault.

"We're just getting big hits after big hits," said Albert Pujols, whose seventh-inning RBI double provided the game-winning run.

After St. Louis fell behind, 1-0, Cesar Izturis and Adam Kennedy each drove in a run in a two-run fifth inning. But Omar Infante's RBI single against Brad Thompson tied the score, and that's how it remained through the sixth.

Facing Jair Jurrjens in the seventh, Kennedy stroked a two-out single. Pujols doubled into the corner in left field to score the second baseman. Pujols has at least one extra-base hit in each of the past five games.

For the third night in a row, the Cardinals tacked on extra runs late against a wobbly Braves bullpen. Joe Mather highlighted the insurance outburst with a two-run homer in the eighth. The lead stood at three after eight innings, but Ryan Ludwick and Troy Glaus knocked RBI singles against Julian Tavarez to remove any doubt about the outcome. In three games at Turner Field, the Cardinals have scored 13 runs in the eighth and ninth innings.

"It's always big getting late runs," Pujols said. "They're a tricky ballclub out there. They're not going to give up. They're a young ballclub, but they know how to play the game. They can get a big rally going. You want to score as many runs as you can."

Carpenter was effective in his return to action after nearly 16 months, even if he wasn't quite as sharp as he might have liked. The right-hander allowed one run on five hits, striking out two and walking two. He needed 67 pitches for four innings, and 36 of his offerings went for strikes.

"I would have liked to have been better," Carpenter said. "I would have liked to be able to locate a little better and go a little longer. But I went into it [thinking], 'I want to take the ball and when [manager Tony La Russa] says I'm done, I'm done.' That's what happened. I was able to get out of some situations early on to not make it a big lead for them."

Thompson turned in a solid effort in relief of Carpenter, pitching 2 2/3 innings of one-run ball for his second relief win in five days. Since his recall from Triple-A Memphis on June 30, Thompson leads all Cardinals relievers with 19 innings, and he has a 3.32 ERA in that span.

Thanks to another Cubs win over the Brewers, St. Louis moved into a virtual tie with Milwaukee for second place in the National League Central as well as the NL Wild Card lead. Chicago holds a four-game lead in first.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.