CINCINNATI — The Cardinals weren't about to give up first place.
Albert Pujols ended St. Louis' longest homer drought in three years with a two-run shot that landed in the front row, and left-hander Jaime Garcia pitched into the seventh inning, beating the Cincinnati Reds 4-3 on Friday night to stay atop the NL Central.
Ryan Ludwick added a two-run shot off Aaron Harang (2-5) that also barely cleared the wall, sparking an offense that hadn't homered in the last nine games. The Cardinals were 2-7 during that span, endangering their season-long stay in first place.
"I think we can manufacture (runs), too," said Ludwick, who had three hits. "But guys can hit home runs, and that's going to help."
Garcia (4-2) has gone at least six innings and given up two or fewer earned runs in all seven starts. It's the best such opening streak by a rookie since the Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela started 1981 with eight such games.
The 23-year-old Garcia had a delayed start to his big-league career. He was promoted in 2008, but needed reconstructive surgery little more than a month later. Back in health, he's been impressive.
"He's not Greg Maddux out there, but he does a good job of composing himself," Manager Tony La Russa said. "He doesn't look like a rookie. He's pitched some tough games in some tough ballparks."
None tougher than the one in Cincinnati, dubbed Great American Small Park because it gives up so many homers that barely clear the walls.
Garcia hadn't given up a homer all season until Drew Stubbs connected on a two-run shot in the seventh, cutting it to 4-2. Garcia gave up only five hits in 61⁄3 innings and left with a 1.42 ERA.
"It's my first year, and I'm learning more," Garcia said. "I'm trying to gain more confidence in myself. As the season goes on, I'm getting a little more comfortable."
Stubbs drove in a run in the ninth by hitting into a forceout against Ryan Franklin, who picked up his eighth save in nine tries by getting Ramon Hernandez to ground into a double play.
The Cardinals have been either tied for first or there alone every day this season, but the Reds had whittled their lead to a half-game by winning five in a row. One more would vault Cincinnati into first, a place where it hasn't been so late in a season since June 8, 2006.
That pair of long-awaited homers kept the Cardinals at the top.
Pujols ended the Reds' streak of 21 scoreless innings with a drive that barely cleared the wall in center during the third inning, his first homer since April 25. Two innings later, Ludwick hit his two-run shot to right field, one that barely eluded Jay Bruce's reach. The outfielder slammed his glove on the track in frustration at his near-miss, drawing a smile from Harang.
"I tipped it," Bruce said. "I gave it my best shot. I was mad. I feel like if the ball hits my glove, I should catch it. I probably shouldn't have thrown my glove down like that. I wasn't trying to show anybody up."
Harang wasn't sure either ball had enough to make the stands.
"That's part of playing here," Harang said. "You're going to give up home runs. The problem was they had runners on when they hit them."