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Pujols powers Cards into NLCS10/11/2004 6:53 AM ET
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
LOS ANGELES -- With one swing of the bat, Albert Pujols helped settle down Jeff Suppan, he silenced the largest crowd in Dodger Stadium history, and he provided the deciding runs as the Cardinals headed to the National League Championship Series for the third time in five years.
He also continued padding his resume as one of the game's top-shelf superstars. Short of a World Series ring -- which he could earn within a couple of weeks -- and an MVP award -- which may come soon also -- a signature playoff performance was about all that he lacked. Now he has one.
Pujols' three-run homer off Wilson Alvarez in the fourth inning broke a tie and sent St. Louis to a 6-2 win over Los Angeles in Game 4 of the NL Division Series. The Cardinals took the best-of-five series, three games to one, and will play the winner of Monday night's Game 5 between Houston and Atlanta. The NLCS begins Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.
Pujols added an RBI single that helped salt the game away, but his three-run moon shot was the biggest hit of the series -- and of his career. It was the fourth postseason homer for Pujols in 17 games dating back to 2001. He went deep twice in the Division Series, driving in the Cards' first and last runs in the divisional round.
"People are finally getting a chance on a national scene to see how great this player is, what we've seen every day in St. Louis for the last four years," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "Now he's starting to get more national attention. Whether it's this year or next year, he's gonna win that MVP."
Pujols will almost certainly finish in the top five in MVP balloting, though his chances of winning the award may be remote. He was the undeniable MVP of the series, however, leading the Cardinals or tying for the team lead in hits, runs, total bases, homers and RBIs. He set the tone with a first-inning homer in Game 1, and put the series away with his long ball in Game 4.
"We know he's a great hitter," said Larry Walker. "We've seen what he's been doing for four years straight. So it's not anything new from him. It's not like you expect him to do it, but you expect a good at-bat every time."
It was actually a single from Suppan, one of the pitcher's two hits on the night, that started the deciding rally. Suppan was called out at second on a bizarre play when Milton Bradley was ruled to have dropped the ball while taking it out of his glove. Tony Womack reached first with two outs on the play. Walker singled up the middle, bringing Pujols to the plate.
And the slugger delivered. He lofted a 3-1 offering from Alvarez, the Dodgers' second pitcher, into the seats in left field, silencing the record crowd of 56,268 and putting his team ahead for good. Of the Cards' 22 runs over four games, 16 were scored with two outs.
"I just wanted to get a good pitch to hit, and that's what I did," Pujols said. "He threw me a good pitch and I got the head out and I'm glad it went out of the park. He's a great veteran guy out there. He wasn't gonna make a mistake. He wants you to hit his pitch. I was just looking for a mistake and I'm glad I hit it out of the park to take that lead."
The raucous crowd had screamed itself hoarse and pounded noisemakers on every pitch for much of the first four innings, but it went silent when Pujols' ball cleared the wall.
In the early going, neither Dodgers starter Odalis Perez nor Suppan appeared to be up to the environment. Both fell behind hitters consistently, and Perez was yanked in the third.
Suppan, however, didn't crumble. He emerged from a two-on, one-out situation in the third by inducing a sacrifice fly from MVP candidate Adrian Beltre and striking out Shawn Green. An inning that could well have gotten out of hand ended with the game still tied. When Pujols broke that tie -- emphatically -- Suppan's confidence seemed to grow exponentially.
"The game plan that we had was basically staying down in the strike zone, work fast and take it pitch-by-pitch," Suppan said. "I was trying to stay focused regardless of what our offense did. I knew they were gonna come through today. Albert has done it all year long and so has everyone else. It's a great team effort."
Suppan rolled through the fourth and fifth before facing the heart of the Dodgers order in the sixth. Even that presented him no trouble, though. Steve Finley, Beltre and Green flied out in order, saving the Cardinals bullpen from being called upon early.
"The key to that whole ballgame was that sixth inning, when he went through the meat of the order 1-2-3," said Ray King, who pitched 2 1/3 perfect innings in the series. "That turned the page for us. We were able to set our bullpen up with [Julian] Tavarez and myself getting the ball to [closer Jason Isringhausen]."
Suppan didn't allow a baserunner after the third, retiring the last 14 batters he faced before being pulled for a pinch-hitter. The blue-clad faithful hardly made themselves a factor after that.
"It's a big win, but we need to keep going," said Pujols. "We need eight more wins. Anybody we play in the next round, Houston or Atlanta, they're a great team. We need to get ready for them. This is just one step that we took on that ladder, but we need to keep going."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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