"I don't think we win the game if he doesn't start it," manager Tony La Russa said. "He was in trouble in three of the four innings, and the pitches he made to escape were typical Chris Carpenter. His ability to hold the game to one run after four innings set the game up for us.
"He's going to get sharper, but his competitive instincts are classic Chris Carpenter. All the starters were watching. He got in trouble and he just made better pitches."
Pitching coach Dave Duncan had said before the game, "I expect it will take a couple of starts to get back in the swing of things."
Carpenter threw more changeups than usual because he had trouble commanding his harder stuff. His next start will come Tuesday at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"It was fun. It was something I've been looking forward to for a long time," Carpenter said of Wednesday's game. "You'd always like to be better. I wish my command had been a little better."
Carpenter walked two and gave up five hits in four innings. However, he said, "I really felt good about the fourth. But by that time, I was out of pitches."
Albert Pujols drove in his ninth run in the last five games with a double in the seventh. Pujols also made a strong defensive play to take a hit away in the Atlanta seventh.
Pujols gave credit to rookie left fielder Joe Mather, who hit his second homer in the series, a two-run shot that stretched a one-run lead into a three-run lead in the eighth.
CARDINALS 7, BRAVES 2: With one game remaining in the series, the Cardinals already have won the series against a depleted Atlanta team. LF Joe Mather hit his fourth home run and drove in two runs as the Cardinals won their third straight game in the series. The bullpen worked five scoreless innings, with LHP Ron Villone gaining his first Cardinals save by getting the last four outs. He retired 1B Casey Kotchman with the bases loaded in the eighth.
NOTES AND QUOTES:
--Veteran LHP Randy Flores surprisingly was optioned to Class AAA Memphis to make room for RHP Chris Carpenter, who started for the first time in nearly 500 days on Wednesday night. Flores will be 33 on Thursday.
--RHP Brad Thompson gained his second win in relief in the last five games. Thompson worked 2 2/3 innings in relief of Carpenter.
--The Cardinals clinched their fifth straight winning trip. "This club plays pretty much the same wherever it goes," manager Tony La Russa said.
--CF Skip Schumaker left the game in the ninth inning, but his injury is believed to be only a hamstring cramp.
--2B Adam Kennedy, little-used lately, started for the first time in the series and had two hits, scored two runs and drove in another.
--RHP Russ Springer retired one hitter on one pitch for the second time in the series.