Albert Pujols swings for the fencesST. LOUIS – A sigh of relief hummed throughout Cardinal Nation Tuesday when the Redbirds picked up their first win of the season. But getting the win wasn’t likely the only reason for the collective exhale.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have long been known as the bottom-dwellers in the NL Central, and losing to them on opening day – at home no less – wasn’t the way the Cardinals dreamed of opening the season.

St. Louis had what should have been a comfortable lead on Monday and saw it quickly vanish the way so many games slipped through the leather webbing throughout last season. Adam Wainwright, though unable to complete six innings, gave up two runs but saw his bullpen surrender four in the final inning.

Tuesday, despite starter Kyle Lohse allowing three runs (two earned), the bullpen blanked the Pirates. But by the time the relievers entered the game it didn’t matter.

Albert Pujols and the gang put on a run-scoring clinic belting three homers and crossing the plate a total of nine times to put to bed any thoughts of a slow offensive start.

Chris Duncan, who was either or injured or spending time in the minors for much of last season, hit his first bomb of the season and was followed by another from Pujols. Yadier Molina also went yard, and in his much anticipated Major League debut, Colby Rasmus had two hits and scored twice.

Solid outings by the staff’s No. 2 (Lohse) and the bullpen were needed in order to quiet any rumblings of what many expect to be another down year for the Cardinals. Back-to-back losses to start the season would only add fuel to the fire of those doubting this year’s squad and what LaRussa has proven so many times before – he is clearly capable of winning with just about any roster you hand him.

But quieting the critics isn’t the only reason rebounding from Monday’s loss was important. The Chicago Cubs have a squad worthy of once again putting up quality numbers and possibly winning another division title. The margin for error will be slim in 2009, and any advantage St. Louis can get over Chicago – whether psychologically or in the standings – will be well worth the extra effort.

The Cubs extra-inning loss to the Astros on Tuesday didn’t exactly hurt, either. This definitely looks as though it will be a long season and a tight race in the Central. But isn’t that why we watch?

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