By The Associated Press
ST. LOUIS — The Cardinals headed to Houston wearing Hawaiian shirts and already dressed for a party.
Nearly out of contention a month ago, St. Louis pulled within one game of the Atlanta Braves in the NL wild-card race when Rafael Furcal hitting a tiebreaking home run in the eighth inning Sunday in a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs.
Before the game, Cardinals players decided they would all wear island garb on the flight in a show of team unity. Manager Tony La Russa decided to go along, as well.
“I’ve got a shirt with palms on it,” he said. “I hope that qualifies.”
St. Louis trailed Atlanta by 10 1-2 games before play on Aug. 26 but have since gone 20-8, with wins in 15 of their last 20 games.
The Cardinals close with a three-game series against the Astros, the team with the worst record in the major leagues at 55-104. Atlanta hosts Philadelphia, a big league-best 99-60.
“It’s a 162-game season and we’ve had some good games and we’ve had some bad games,” catcher Yadier Molina said. “Right now, we’re playing pretty good baseball.”
Making what might have been his final home appearance for the Cardinals, Albert Pujols went 0 for 4 and stopped his streak of reaching base in 40 successive games. The three-time NL MVP, who is eligible for free agency, received a 45-second standing ovation during his first at-bat. He stepped out of the batter’s box and tipped his helmet.
“It was pretty emotional, obviously,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure that I stayed focused.”
Pujols has been noncommittal on his future, tending to focus on the present.
“Right now, I’m still a Cardinal,” he said. “I’m going to do my best to help this organization to the next level. That’s my job. If I get distracted, thinking about what’s going to happen this off season, I don’t think I’m doing my job.”
St. Louis has six straight series. The Cardinals took two of three from the Cubs despite scoring just three runs in the series.
On Saturday, the Cardinals trailed with two outs in the ninth before winning 2-1. On Sunday, they started their comeback in the seventh.
Trailing 2-1, St. Louis tied the score in the seventh on Molina’s career-best 14th homer. The following inning, Furcal homered off Randy Wells (7-6).
“I put a good swing on it,” Furcal said. “Now, that we’ve gotten close, we’ve got to go to Houston with the same intensity and try to win all three games there.”
Furcal has struggled defensively the last few weeks. He made five errors in a six-game stretch, including a key ninth-inning bobble in an 8-6 loss to New York on Thursday.
“For him to come through, that was huge for us,” Pujols said. “Nobody deserves that home run more that him.”
Octavio Dotel (5-3) retired two batters in the eighth, and Jason Motte pitched a perfect ninth for his ninth save in 13 chances.
Cardinals starter Edwin Jackson allowed two runs and five hits in seven innings. Wells, who grew up in the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Ill., gave up three runs in eight innings.
The home runs ruined a strong effort by Wells, who gave up six hits and three runs in going the distance.
“It’s not a very good way to end the season,” Wells said. “The two homers came on cutters.”
Geovany Soto’s sacrifice fly put the Cubs ahead in the fourth, but Jackson’s sacrifice fly tied it in the fifth.
“We hit some balls hard, but that’s baseball,” Chicago manager Mike Quade said.
NOTES: In the event of a tie, St. Louis would host a tiebreaker game Thursday because the Cardinals beat the Braves 5-1 in the season series. … The Cardinals’ Jaime Garcia (13-7, 3.45) will face Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez (11-11, 3.51) on Monday. … The Cubs’ Starlin Castro leads the NL with 203 hits. He has reached safely in a career-high 37 consecutive games. … St. Louis passed the 3 million mark in home attendance for the eighth successive season and, barring a tiebreaker, finished at 3,093,954, including 41,469 on Sunday.