ATLANTA — The St. Louis Cardinals gushed over the return of Chris Carpenter, who gives their playoff hopes a major boost.
Over in the other clubhouse, the Atlanta Braves got a grim report on Tim Hudson’s ailing elbow, another blow in their miserable season.
Carpenter pitched four solid innings in his first start since April 2007, and the Cardinals beat the slumping Braves 7-2 on Wednesday night.
Albert Pujols drove in the go-ahead run in the seventh for the Cardinals and Joe Mather put the game out of reach with a two-run homer in the eighth.
But all eyes were on Carpenter, the NL Cy Young Award winner in 2005. He spent the past year recovering from ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow and was making his first appearance in the big leagues since starting on opening day — of last season.
"It was fun," he said. "It was something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. It’s just good to get back out there and complete."
Carpenter allowed one run and five hits. He threw 67 pitches, striking out two and walking two.
Adding another quality starter to the rotation should bolster the Cardinals for the final two months as they try to keep pace with the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central. St. Louis and Milwaukee are tied for second, four games back.
"I didn’t know how long I would be out there," Carpenter said. "I went out there with the mind-set that I would go as hard as I could for as long as I could."
Manager Tony La Russa certainly had no complaints.
"His competitive instincts were typical Chris Carpenter," La Russa said. "He didn’t walk into the Cy Young. He earned every bit of it."
Hudson, the Braves’ top starter, went on the disabled list Monday after an MRI discovered ligament damage in his elbow. He was examined by the team physician and met Wednesday with Dr. James Andrews of Birmingham, Ala., who already performed season-ending operations on Atlanta pitchers John Smoltz and Peter Moylan.
"Both concur that surgery is likely," Braves spokesman Brad Hainje said after the game. "But he’s going to take a short rehabilitation period before he makes a final decision."
Hudson is likely to need the same operation that Carpenter had and would probably be sidelined for at least a year.
"I think I lost my mentor," said Jair Jurrjens, who took the latest Atlanta loss. "I hope he can recover quick because we need him."
The Braves need a lot more than Hudson in what has become a lost season.
They left the bases loaded three times and stranded 14 runners overall, a major problem for them all season. Casey Kotchman, acquired Tuesday in the blockbuster deal that sent Mark Teixeira to the Los Angeles Angels, grounded out with three on to end the eighth. The new first baseman went 0-for-5 in his Atlanta debut.
"Obviously I wanted a different outcome tonight," Kotchman said.
St. Louis broke a 2-2 tie in the seventh after Jurrjens (10-6) retired the first two hitters. Adam Kennedy kept the inning going with a single, and Pujols drove him home with a double into the left-field corner.
Greg Norton got to the ball quickly and hit shortstop Yunel Escobar with a perfect relay. Escobar appeared to have time to get Kennedy, who had just rounded third, but the strong-armed shortstop inexplicably double-pumped before deciding not to even throw home.
Escobar took off his cap and stared off into the distance, clearly perturbed at his indecision.
In the eighth, Mather gave the Cardinals a cushion with his fourth homer, a drive over the left-field wall off Blaine Boyer. Mather homered in the opening game of the series Monday.
Atlanta’s bullpen gave up two more runs in the ninth and has surrendered 49 runs during a five-game losing streak.
The Braves scored their lone run off Carpenter with three straight hits in the second, including Jeff Francoeur’s RBI single. Atlanta had runners at second and third with one out, but Carpenter escaped the jam by getting Jurrjens and Gregor Blanco to ground out.
"We never get that big hit when we need it," Jurrjens said. "We’re not playing like a team right now."
St. Louis claimed the lead in the fifth. Shortstop Cesar Izturis, batting in the ninth spot, singled in the tying run and Kennedy put the Cardinals ahead with an RBI double.
Atlanta struck back in the bottom half of the fifth after Brad Thompson took over on the mound. Escobar led off with a walk, moved to second on a groundout, took third on Norton’s single and trotted home when Omar Infante slapped a single past third.
Thompson (4-2) fanned Kelly Johnson and escaped the jam when Corky Miller grounded out with the bases loaded. He got the win, going 2 2-3 innings. Ron Villone recorded the final four outs for his first save since 2005.Notes: The Cardinals optioned LHP Randy Flores to Triple-A Memphis to clear a spot for Carpenter. Flores was 1-0 with one save and a 4.56 ERA in 37 games. ... Carpenter spent 270 games on the DL. ... Jurrjens threw 116 pitches in seven innings. ... Cardinals CF Skip Schumaker left the game with a hamstring cramp.