Albert Pujols' eighth career game-winning home run capped a longball rally in the St. Louis Cardinals' 3-2 victory over the Washington Nationals on Friday night, even if it came too late to reward 42-year-old John Smoltz's second dominant start in his National League rebirth.
Smoltz got a nice ovation as he walked to the dugout after warming up before his first start at home, and again before his first at-bat. He justified the instant adoration with six strong innings, striking out six and allowing a run while leaving with the game tied at 1.
Smoltz doesn't care about the skeptics who point out his first starts have come against last-place teams. He struck out nine, including seven in a row, last Sunday at San Diego. The Nationals are 14-12 in August, with a shot at their first winning month since September 2007.
"People can say what they want about the Nationals maybe not having the best of years, but lately they've been swinging the bat extremely well, scoring in double digits every time you look up," Smoltz said. "I was fortunate to keep them to one run."
Smoltz has a 0.82 ERA after going 2-5 with an 8.33 ERA in Boston, leading to his release earlier this month. Thus far he's added depth beyond the big three of Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro, whose starts since July 1 have led to a 28-4 record.
Pujols has 41 homers but only four in the last 21 games, after lining a 1-1 pitch from Jason Bergmann (2-4) an estimated 407 feet over the left-field wall. An inning earlier, Khalil Greene made the dramatics possible with his first career pinch hit-homer off Nationals starter John Lannan, which knotted the game at 2-2.
"The big hero at the end of this night is this guy Khalil," Pujols said. "What he did was not easy."
Greene's sixth homer of the season came in his first at-bat since Aug. 20, and in a role he definitely does not relish. He's 4 for 18 as a pinch hitter, although he does have six RBIs.
"I don't know what preparation you can do," Greene said. "It's nice just to be able to get into a game and do something."
Pujols had two comebackers and a weak fly out before connecting for his first game-winner since July 13, 2006, against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He also reached 100 runs for the eighth time in his nine seasons.
St. Louis is a combined 6-13 for all other starters during that span.
Jason Motte (4-4) worked around Elijah Dukes' one-out double in the ninth for the win.
Lannan allowed two runs and four hits in eight innings, a strong rebound from the worst start of his career, when he allowed seven runs in 1 2-3 innings against Milwaukee.
"That was more like what we saw earlier in the year," manager Jim Riggleman said. "He was outstanding against a good hitting ballclub, and got a lot of ground balls."