As he continues his pursuit of the first Triple Crown in baseball in 36 years, Albert Pujols is also building his case for National League MVP.
The St. Louis slugger will look to extend his career-high hitting streak to 25 games when the Cardinals open a four-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
The streak was in jeopardy Sunday, as Pujols went hitless over his first three at-bats in the decisive game of St. Louis’ series against NL West-leading Atlanta. But in the eighth, he made everyone in Busch Stadium forget about the 12th unassisted triple play in major league history, turned by Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal in the fifth.
Pujols launched a tiebreaking homer off major league saves leader John Smoltz to lift the Cardinals to 3-2 win.
“You don’t want to face that guy in that situation,” Pujols said of Smoltz. “He’s the best guy. I guess I got lucky and won the battle.”
The Cardinals trail first-place Houston in the NL Central by two games and are just a half-game game in front of the third-place Chicago Cubs. Both Houston and Chicago won on Sunday.
Pujols has already become the first player in baseball history to hit 30 homers, drive in 100 runs and score 100 in each of his first three seasons.
Now, the 23-year-old MVP candidate has his sights set on winning the first Triple Crown since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Pujols leads the majors in hitting with a .368 average. He is second in the NL with 101 RBIs, 11 behind leader Preston Wilson of Colorado. Pujols’ 31 homers trail leader Barry Bonds of San Francisco by four.
Pujols is batting .383 (36-for-94) during his hitting streak with four homers, 15 RBIs and 20 runs scored. It is the longest streak for the Cardinals since Joe McEwing hit in 25 straight in 1999.
The Pirates have won two straight, including Sunday’s 5-3 victory over Colorado. Nine players had hits for Pittsburgh, which hasn’t won three straight since July 23-25.
STANDINGS: Cardinals - 2nd place, 2 GB, NL Central. Pirates - 4th place, 8 GB, NL Central.
CARDINALS PROBABLE STARTER: Dan Haren (2-3, 4.03 ERA). Haren was 2-0 with a 1.87 ERA in four starts before Wednesday’s 7-3 loss to Florida. The 22-year-old right-hander was reached for five runs and a season-high 10 hits, while striking out a season high-tying six and walking one. The rookie didn’t receive a decision in his lone career start against Pittsburgh, allowing three runs and four hits over 5 1-3 innings in the Cardinals’ 10-5 loss on July 25.
PIRATES PROBABLE STARTER: Kip Wells (5-5, 3.63 ERA). Wells’ three-game win streak was snapped with Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to San Francisco. The 26-year-old right-hander, who had a 2.87 ERA over four starts during the run, allowed three runs and six hits over seven innings. Wells is 2-3 with a 5.30 ERA in six career starts against St. Louis.
OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Cardinals - Pujols, .368 avg., 31 HRs, 101 RBIs and 101 runs; Edgar Renteria, 25 SBs. Pirates - Jason Kendall, .303 avg. and 66 runs; Brian Giles, 64 RBIs; Reggie Sanders, 22 HRs and 9 SBs.
SEASON SERIES: Tied, 5-5.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Cardinals - The Cardinals had only 14 runs and 34 hits during a 3-3 homestand, hitting .139 (5-for-36) with runners in scoring position. … Cardinals pitchers lead the NL with a .217 (51-for-235) batting average. … CF Jim Edmonds is hitting .059 (1-for-17) since returning from a strained shoulder that sidelined him for nine games. Pirates - RHP Wells has pitched into the sixth inning in each of his last eight starts and is 2-0 with a 1.73 ERA in his last four outings at home. … C Kendall is hitting .326 (78-for-239) over his last 59 games and has reached base safely in 37 of his last 38. … The Pirates demoted RHP Duaner Sanchez to Nashville on Sunday and designated OF Adam Hyzdu for assignment.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Cardinals - 27-31 on the road; Pirates - 25-32 at home.
INJURIES: Cardinals - C Joe Girardi (back), 15-day DL; C Steve Torrealba (elbow), 15-day DL; 2B Fernando Vina (hamstring), 15-day DL; OF Eli Marrero (ankle), 15-day DL; RHP Matt Morris (hand), 15-day DL; LHP Lance Painter (calf), 15-day DL; RHP Russ Springer (elbow), 15-day DL; RHP Kiko Calero (foot), 60-day DL; RHP Chris Carpenter (shoulder), 60-day DL; RHP Gene Stechschulte (shoulder), 60-day DL. Pirates - RHP Salomon Torres (hamstring), 15-day DL; RHP Kris Benson (shoulder), 60-day DL; LHP Dave Williams (shoulder), 60-day DL; INF Pat Meares (hand), 60-day DL; INF Pokey Reese (thumb), 60-day DL.