St. Louis (44-36) at Atlanta (35-47)

Light Rain Currently: Atlanta, GA
Temp: 75° F
  • Game info: 7:05 pm EDT Mon Jul 3, 2006
Preview | Box Score | Recap

Albert Pujols may be returning to form for the St. Louis Cardinals.

That’s not a good thing for the Atlanta Braves, who begin a three-game series with the Cardinals at Turner Field on Monday.

The powerful slugger missed 15 games while on the disabled list for a strained side muscle, and had yet to regain his power stroke. Since returning against the Chicago White Sox on June 22, Pujols had batted .342, but only had one homer and three RBIs.

He changed all that with one swing of the bat Sunday against Kansas City, hitting a three-run homer in the Cardinals’ 9-7 win and helping them avoid a three-game sweep. He finished 3-for-5 with four RBIs and has 27 homers and 72 RBIs this season.

Pujols’ performance may also help the Cardinals (44-36) reverse what had been a difficult slump that ended June. St. Louis finished 9-16 (.360) in June, its third-lowest winning percentage in that month in team history, then began July with a loss to the Royals before turning things around on Sunday.

The victory for the Cardinals was only their second in the last 12 games, and helped them move one game ahead of the Reds and atop the NL Central after Cincinnati lost 6-3 to Cleveland.

“It’s part of the game,” Pujols said of the Cardinals’ recent problems. “I would say it’s better to struggle right now than later on, because your body, later on, wears out.”

Pujols can look forward to facing John Smoltz (4-5, 3.73 ERA), who starts for the Braves (35-47) on Monday. He’s batting .417 (5-for-12) against Smoltz in his career, with two homers among the five hits.

Smoltz hopes to help the Braves win consecutive games for the first time since May 24-28. After losing 20 of 23 games, Atlanta is 5-4 in its past nine games, modest improvement for the Braves, who hadn’t been in last place this late in the season since 1990, the year before starting their run of 14 straight division titles.

Atlanta took two of three from Baltimore over the weekend, including Sunday’s 10-3 victory. It was the Braves’ first home series victory since May 15-18 against Florida.

“It’s huge,” said Horacio Ramirez, who earned the win on Sunday. “It’s no secret we haven’t done well, but we’re fighting. We still believe we can do well and get in the thick of things.”

Smoltz will be looking for his first victory since May 22. He’s 0-3 in his last six starts, despite allowing fewer than four runs in five of those outings.

The right-hander is 9-11 with six saves and a 4.19 ERA in 38 appearances— 27 starts—against the Cardinals. The Braves have won 13 of the last 16 games against St. Louis in which Smoltz made an appearance, despite his ERA being the highest of any NL team he’s faced.

Anthony Reyes (1-2, 2.16) has pitched superb for the Cardinals in a limited role, but hopes Pujols and the offense can give him better run support than he recently has received.

The rookie right-hander has allowed only six earned runs in his four outings this season, but St. Louis is scoring only 2.16 runs per game in his starts.

Reyes threw a one-hitter against the White Sox on June 22, but lost 1-0, then allowed only two runs and four hits in five innings against Cleveland on Tuesday in a 3-1 defeat to the Indians.

The Cardinals have scored eight runs in his starts.

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Starting Pitchers

A. Reyes SD vs. J. Smoltz StL
5-8 Record 16-9
5.06 ERA 3.49
72 K 211
34 BB 55
1.38 WHIP 1.19