ST. LOUIS -- Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders reminded Cardinals fans what they had missed without the two in the lineup for most of the second half of the season, and gave opponents a glimpse of what to expect in the postseason with the two relatively healthy.
Sanders came up with two clutch RBIs -- the fifth consecutive game he has knocked in at least one run -- and Larry Walker bopped two solo home runs to push the Cardinals past the Cincinnati Reds, 9-6, in front of 49,487 at Busch Stadium in the second-to-last regular-season game to be played at the stadium.
But the most overlooked value the two bring is the protection they give to MVP candidate Albert Pujols. Pujols homered for the second straight day (his 41st of the season) and got on base three of the four times he came to bat.
"I think it has to do with starting to get some protection," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said of Pujols' homers in consecutive games. "Jimmy [Edmonds] has been behind him and now we've got Walker and Sanders starting to swing good, so that means they're going to have to come at [Pujols] more and use a little more patience. They're going to have to expand the zone. All those little things count for a lot when you are trying to produce. So when you think of all the guys we've been missing, the year he has had has been phenomenal."
Walker's pair of long balls gave him 15 for the season and 383 for his career, putting him in 50th place on baseball's all-time list.
Starting pitching has carried the Cardinals through the season, but for the last two games it has been the offense. Jason Marquis couldn't hold a 4-0 Cardinals lead, giving up three runs in the fifth and two in the sixth on a two-run homer by Reds prospect Edwin Encarnacion. Marquis pitched six innings, giving up five runs on seven hits while striking out five. Randy Flores came in to grab the win, improving to 3-1 with a 3.48 ERA.
"It wasn't good enough," La Russa said of Marquis' start. "It looked like he was kind of hurrying to get outs. He missed his location a couple of times, they've got a dangerous lineup and they made him pay."
Tied at 6 in the seventh inning, the Cardinals were benefactors of a Reds bullpen that struggled to get an out. Allan Simpson came on in relief of starter Ramon Ortiz and walked two batters before hitting Pujols, who exchanged words with Simpson.
"I just wanted to know what he said," Pujols said. "When I came into the dugout they told me he wasn't trying to do it on purpose. I know that. I know that's the last thing you would want to do in that situation."
Brian Shackelford replaced Simpson with the bases loaded, and didn't fare well himself. Hector Luna was plunked to force in a run, giving the Cardinals a 7-6 edge they never relinquished.
Todd Coffey did not fare much better, yielding a two-run single to Sanders before Mark Grudzielanek lined into an unassisted double play by first baseman Adam Dunn. The five consecutive games with an RBI are a season-high for the team.
Jason Isringhausen loaded the bases in the ninth, but did not allow a run to score, notching his 38th save of the season.
The Cardinals are now just one win away from clinching the first back-to-back 100-win seasons since notching the figure three straight years from 1942-1944.
"Just because of the history of this franchise, it would be a nice mark for the two-year run, but anytime you chase numbers you are making a big mistake," La Russa said. "I just want to come out and play our game. If Cincinnati beats us you tip your cap to them. If we get it, it's a really special mark, but it's not the reason we play."
Stephen A. Norris is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.