ST. LOUIS -- After Albert Pujols homered and singled his first two at-bats, giving him eight hits and eight RBI in 10 weekend chances, the Braves removed him from the equation.
Not soon enough to keep the Cardinals' star from shaving Chipper Jones' once seemingly insurmountable lead for the batting title to mere percentage points, and helping St. Louis to a 6-3 victory over Atlanta on Sunday.
Pujols swung at only one pitch the last three at-bats before Jones reclaimed the lead Pujols held for 4½ innings with an eighth-inning double that put his average at .3594. The fast-climbing Pujols is at .3586 after going 2-for-2 with his major league-leading 29th and 30th intentional walks, plus a third walk on five pitches in the eighth.
Pujols said Jones' presence had nothing to do with his numbers, just as he insisted earlier this month after hitting a grand slam and going 4-for-4 to steal some of Manny Ramirez's thunder that if the Dodgers had "nine Manny Ramirezes" it wouldn't have made a difference.
"Just because I've got Chipper on the other side and he's leading the league, that isn't going to turn my switch on to try to play the game hard," Pujols said. "I play the game hard no matter what, no matter who's in town.
"I never take this game for granted, it doesn't matter who's on the other side."
Pujols finished at .523 in seven games against the Braves with three homers and 15 RBI, and is a .372 career hitter against them. Braves manager Bobby Cox said he had no idea how to pitch to Pujols, adding, "If I did, I would tell the whole world how to get him out."
Pujols' big weekend helped the Cardinals take two of three from the sinking Braves, who have dropped 12 of 14. St. Louis matched its season-best of 14 games above .500 (73-59) and remained in the thick of the chase for a wild-card spot.
The batting title is the only prize out there for Jones, who has led the league virtually the entire season.
"There's always something you can do as a player to motivate yourself," Jones said. "It's going to be a long month, but certainly he and I being neck and neck will be some motivation."
Pujols hit his 28th homer in the first, lining a 1-0 fastball down the middle from Jo-Jo Reyes (3-10) into the left-field stands. He's batting .563 during an eight-game hitting streak with three homers and has 87 RBI, closing in on his eighth consecutive 100-RBI season to begin his career, with 37 RBI in 36 games since the All-Star break.
His lone blemish this weekend came on Saturday, when Pujols took his time getting to first after a routine grounder that would have ended the ninth inning with the Cardinals down by a run. Second baseman Felipe Lopez, unaccustomed to playing with Pujols, waited until he turned around and threw late after double-pumping on what was ruled an infield hit by Martin Prado.
The Cardinals went on to lose 8-4.
Pujols, who declined comment after the game, said Sunday that he'll roam far from the base at times and that infielders who have played with him know to throw to the base and hit him on the run.
Braden Looper (12-10) worked seven innings for the sixth consecutive time, matching his victory total from 2007 in his first season as a starter, and Brian Barton had three hits and three RBI in a spot start, helping the Cardinals take two of three.
Rookie Chris Perez recorded the last four outs for his fifth save in six chances and fifth in a row since his recall earlier this month.
Reyes hit a two-run single in the second for his first career RBIs in 43 at-bats, but didn't fare as well on the mound. He allowed six runs in 5 2/3 innings, five of them earned, and has lost six in a row with a 6.59 ERA over seven starts and a relief appearance since his last win on June 13 over the Angels.
Looper struggled only in the second, when the Braves scored three runs on three hits, a walk and a hit batter to take a 3-2 lead. Reyes immediately gave it up on Barton's two-run single in the bottom of the second. The other six innings, the Braves totaled three hits.
"They just kind of found some holes that inning," Looper said. "After that I was able to make a lot of good pitches and keep them off balance."
Right fielder Ryan Ludwick squashed the Braves' only other scoring chance when he threw out Jones trying to score from second on Prado's two-out single to end the sixth.
Barton aggravated a strained right side muscle legging out a bunt hit in the sixth and was taken out of the game, and said doctors told him they'll know about an injury believed to be "pretty mild" in the next few days.
Joe Mather added two RBI for the Cardinals with a sacrifice fly and RBI double.
Looper is 3-3 with a 2.30 ERA in his last seven starts. ... Jones is batting .399 right-handed and .339 left-handed, yet La Russa turned him around in the eighth, replacing right-hander Russ Springer with lefty Ron Villone before Jones doubled for his lone hit. ... Greg Norton had a pinch hit in all three games, including a homer on Friday, and is batting .333 (12-for-36) in that role. ... The Cardinals won the season series 5-2, outscoring the Braves 59-31.