As the Brewers distanced themselves from the Cardinals in the National League Central standings over recent weeks, there was always a glimmer of hope amongst the Cardinal faithful that was expressed with a series of "if's." If...If...If...If... The first "if" in that string was completed this afternoon in Milwaukee as the Cardinals completed a sweep of the first-place Brewers with an 8-4 victory. This feat--and, with the way the Brew Crew have played at home this season, it is a feat--the Cardinals have trimmed a 10.5-game deficit in the standings to 7.5 games, with only 25 left to play.
Rafael Furcal and Albert Pujols started things off with a bang for the second consecutive game. Yesterday, Furcal led off with a solo homer and Pujols followed suit; today, Furcal led off with a homer (this time, from the left-handed batter's box) and Pujols followed suit. As they did yesterday, the Cards held on for a victory after taking a first-inning lead of 2-0.
For Pujols, today's was a throwback performance. It was the type of game that we have all been pining for since his sluggish start to the 2011 campaign, with the WAR Maching going all ridiculous on the Brewers and, in doing so, powering the club to victory even though rookie starter Cotton Dickson only managed to last 3.1 innings against the Brewers' bats. Pujols's 4 for 4 effort caused his batting average to rise from .286 to .292. His 5 RBI raised his seasonal total from 79 to 84. His two dingers (he clubbed a grand slam, as well) strengthened his grip of National League leader board by upping his total to 34 for 2011.
The win is due just as much to a strong effort from the bullpen as it is to Pujols's heroics. Octavio Dotel stepped up in a big way. The veteran relieved Dickson in the fourth and threw two and two-thirds scoreless innings that included 5 strikeouts. Then Tony La Russa admirably went to his (kind of) closer Fernando Salas in the seventh with the top of the Milwaukee lineup due up. He stayed with Salas through the eighth, as well. Even though Salas gave up a solo home run to Prince Fielder, it was the right tactical decision from the manager. Then, ahead 8-4, La Russa brought in Jason Motte for the ninth and he was able to close the game out despite things getting a bit interesting.
Suddenly, another season of .300 BA, 30 HR, and 100 RBI doesn't quite so far-fetched for Pujols just as the possibility of the playoffs this October feels a little less impossible. After all, such a miraculous turn-of-events now requires one less "if."