Three-time MVP gets first homer in 12 games, nearly hits another

SAN DIEGO -- Albert Pujols insists he was not in a slump. The results are finally supporting him.

Pujols hit his first home run and drove in his first runs in 12 games as the St. Louis Cardinals avoided a sweep with an 8-3 win over the San Diego Padres on Thursday night.

Brendan Ryan tied a career high with four hits, and rookie P.J. Walters won his first major league game with five shutout innings. But it was Pujols' play that had everyone's attention, except Pujols.

"I'm just putting a good swing on it," said Pujols, who finished with three RBIs. "It's the same swing I've been putting on it all year. Sooner or later, they're going to fall."

When advised that some major league scouts following the Cardinals believe his swing in the three games against the Padres was a big improvement over the rest of the month, Pujols said, "That's why they're scouting and I'm playing."

But the numbers don't lie.

Pujols had not homered nor had an RBI since May 14 at Cincinnati. His batting average had dipped from .344 on May 1 to .303 coming into the series, but he had three hits in the opener Tuesday. Pujols' 11-game streak without an RBI tied his career high, set during his rookie season of 2001. He had hit just one home run in 28 games since April 26 before he hammered a solo shot for his ninth home run.

And Pujols nearly had another line-drive homer.

"It's always good when Albert's hitting," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "But there's no doubt that he's going to hit."

The Cardinals' offensive outburst helped them avoid their first three-game sweep against San Diego in nearly 15 years.

Pujols lined a homer off Wade LeBlanc (2-3) in the fifth inning that hit off the third-story balcony of the brick Western Metal Supply Co. building in left field.

"It was supposed to be away but it was [in the] middle," LeBlanc said. "It was supposed to be the pitch he popped up in the first inning."

The three-time MVP nearly did the same thing in the third. But his hard smash with two runners on hit just foul down the left-field line. Pujols followed with a grounder that drove in one run.

"You can't treat guys differently," LeBlanc said about facing Pujols when he is in a slump. "He's always Albert Pujols."

Pujols, who came into the series with just three hits in 20 at-bats, added a sacrifice fly in the seventh Thursday as St. Louis broke out of its offensive doldrums with 15 hits. The Cardinals had scored just one run in dropping the first two games of the series, including Wednesday night's 2-1 loss in 13 innings.

"It's part of the game," Pujols said. "We've been facing good pitching [in this series]. We had a lot of chances. But this is the big leagues. It doesn't matter what kind of chances you have ... Sometimes you hit the ball hard or sometimes you hit a blooper and it gets you going."

Ryan, who came in hitting .175, had four hits for the third time in his career, including a solo homer in the fifth, two batters ahead of Pujols. Ryan also scored three runs to tie his career high.

"I almost feel like my life is on the line in every at-bat," Ryan said. "I'm treating every at-bat like it's my last one. As cliche as that may sound, I don't know if I'm playing tomorrow. I just have to do the best I can."

Walters (1-0) gave up four hits, struck out four and walked two in his second big league start, his first this season.

Walters pitched out of a pair of two-out, bases-loaded jams against the NL West-leading Padres. He retired LeBlanc on a fly ball in the second and struck out Chase Headley in the fifth.

San Diego, which won the first two games of the series 1-0 and 2-1, had its four-game winning streak snapped.

St. Louis has hit only 14 homers in 25 games in May.

LeBlanc, who had been solid in his first six starts this season, was hit hard for the second straight game.

The left-hander gave up four runs on nine hits over 5 2/3 innings. LeBlanc lasted just three innings in his last outing, a 15-8 loss at Seattle on Friday when he allowed a career-high eight runs.

LeBlanc had allowed two or fewer runs in each of his first six starts.

The Padres were looking to sweep St. Louis in a three-game series for the first time since August 1995.

Game notes
St. Louis placed RHP Kyle Lohse on the DL with exertional compartment syndrome in his right forearm. It's an exercise-induced neuromuscular condition that causes pain and swelling in legs or arms and can be difficult to identify. Lohse is scheduled to have surgery on Friday. ... Ryan last had four hits on July 27 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. ... After not allowing a home run in his first six starts, LeBlanc has given up four in his last two.