Pujols' go-ahead three-run homer with two outs in the eighth inning was the difference in St. Louis' 4-2 victory over the San Diego Padres on Wednesday night, ending a seven-game losing streak during which the Cardinals' NL Central lead shriveled to 1½ games.
"You work on a zero for a while and it gets tougher and tougher to win one," manager Tony La Russa said. "It's very important in a lot of ways."
Pujols hit a 1-0 pitch from Cla Meredith into the third of four decks over the left-field wall to erase a one-run deficit. He had driven in one run in the previous five games before the booming shot eased the Cardinals' frustration.
Pujols said he hasn't been overly troubled by the way St. Louis' lead has quickly dwindled.
"We don't need to play a catch-up game here, somebody had to catch us," Pujols said. "It's tough with that seven-game losing streak, but it stops here."
Pujols has 47 homers and 19 have accounted for the game-winning RBI. That ties Willie Mays (1962) for the highest single-season total in data that goes back to 1957.
St. Louis has won only two of its last 10, five of the losses by one run apiece. While the Cardinals were struggling, second-place Houston has been streaking. The Astros beat Pittsburgh 7-6 in 15 innings on Wednesday for their eighth straight victory.
The Cardinals got to the San Diego bullpen after Chris Young followed a near no-hitter with seven dominant innings, ending the Padres' six-game winning streak. St. Louis also reduced its magic number for clinching a third straight division title to four after the number was stuck at five for six games.
So Taguchi drew a leadoff walk against Scott Linebrink (7-4) and Aaron Miles walked with one out before Pujols greeted Meredith, who entered the game with a 0.72 ERA, with a two-out blast estimated at 425 feet on a sinker that the reliever said "didn't sink."
"I might make that pitch 100 times a year and get away with it," Meredith said. "Not tonight. He's Albert Pujols. What more can you say?
"I went right after him and he got me."
San Diego pinch-runner Khalil Greene had scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch with two outs in the eighth. A strained ligament in his left middle finger has kept Greene out of the starting lineup most of the month since Aug. 17, but he's scored the winning run three times in the span.
Mike Piazza had an RBI single for the Padres, who have a one-game lead over the Dodgers in the NL West and a magic number of four. Los Angeles beat Colorado 6-4 Wednesday night.
"We beat a very good team two out of three games," Young said. "You can't be disappointed with where we are now."
Tyler Johnson (1-4) got the last out in the eighth for his first career victory and Adam Wainwright got the last three outs for his second save in four chances.
Greene scored easily on a 2-2 pitch in the dirt by Tyler Johnson that deflected off catcher Yadier Molina's glove and spun away to the right. Gonzalez attempted to score from second when Molina had trouble locating the ball, but Molina made a nice recovery to throw him out at the plate.
Scott Rolen had been in a 3-for-29 slump with one RBI before his run-scoring single in the fourth tied it at 1 for St. Louis.
The Padres roughed up the Cardinals' top two starters, Jeff Suppan and Chris Carpenter, in the first two games of the series. Anthony Reyes, a 24-year-old rookie, had a lot more success.
Reyes held San Diego to one run on five hits in the first innings before tiring in the seventh. He went to a full count with leadoff batter Geoff Blum before walking him and fell behind 2-0 against Young before getting pulled after 108 pitches. He struck out six, fanning Termel Sledge three times and Mike Cameron twice, and walked four.
"Everyone told me to just go out there and have fun," Reyes said. "Just try not to think about anything and pitch your game and not worry about the outcome."
Reyes overcame a shaky start, needing 30 pitches to get out of the first trailing 1-0. Dave Roberts drew a leadoff walk, stole his third base of the series on strike three to Sledge and scored on Piazza's two-out single.
Young retired the first 11 batters with the help of a double play, throwing a first-pitch strike to seven of the first eight hitters, before giving up the tying run in the fourth. Pujols singled with two outs, stole second and went to third on Piazza's wild throw before scoring on Rolen's single.
Young dominated otherwise, retiring 10 of the next 11.
- Juan Encarnacion, without an RBI in his last eight games, got a day off for St. Louis.
- Padres 3B Russell Branyan reached over the railing bordering the San Diego dugout to grab Jim Edmonds' foul pop in the seventh.
- The Padres haven't swept the Cardinals in St. Louis since 1980.