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Pujols key difference between Cardinals and Reds

CINCINNATI — The combination of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright at the top of the rotation is one reason the St. Louis Cardinals are the favorites to win their second straight NL Central title.

Another monster season out of Albert Pujols wouldn’t hurt, either.

While Wainwright makes his 2010 debut, Pujols will try to provide an encore to his powerful opening day performance as the visiting Cardinals continue a three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday night.

Pujols was unanimously given his third NL MVP award last year, leading the majors with 47 home runs while hitting .327 — his ninth straight season batting at least .314 to begin his career.

He wasted no time picking up where he left off, going 4 for 5 with two home runs and four runs scored in an 11-6 win at Cincinnati on Monday in the opener for both teams.

“That’s why there’s nobody better playing the game today than him,” manager Tony La Russa said. “He’s an amazing player. He works like a maniac and he’s ready every game.”

Catcher Yadier Molina added his first career grand slam and emerging outfielder Colby Rasmus also homered in the Cardinals’ first regular season game with former slugger and admitted steroid user Mark McGwire as their hitting coach.

“We had a great spring training with him — his knowledge and the things he talked about with the young guys and myself,” Pujols said of McGwire. “We don’t want to try to make Mark look good. We’re going to try to do the best we can to help our ballclub win, and that’s what we did. If we’re able to do that, we’ll make everybody look good.”

Carpenter earned the victory Monday, allowing two runs in six innings. He finished second to San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum in last season’s NL Cy Young Award voting — just ahead of Wainwright (19-8, 2.63 ERA).

The 28-year-old right-hander led the NL in wins, finished fourth in ERA and strikeouts (212), and was a big reason St. Louis reached the playoffs for the seventh time in 10 years.

He has yet to have a dominating outing versus the Reds, however, going 1-2 with a 5.56 ERA in four career starts against them. In two starts at Great American Ball Park, he’s 0-1 with a 7.36 ERA.

Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto, meanwhile, went 2-0 with a 1.76 ERA in three starts against St. Louis last season. The Reds are hoping for big things from the 24-year-old right-hander, who was 6-3 with a 2.33 ERA in his first 12 starts of 2009 before running into some problems.

Cueto (11-11, 4.41) begins his third major league season with some uncertainty after dealing with back stiffness during his final spring outing Thursday. He did not pitch more than four innings in any Cactus League game.

“One of those things,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He was getting the ball up more than he usually does and his velocity was down a little bit.”

Baker was likely happy with his offense Monday as Joey Votto went 3 for 5 with a home run and Drew Stubbs was 2 for 2 after entering the game as a pinch hitter.

Cincinnati scored at least one run off three different Cardinals relievers, including two off closer Ryan Franklin. Franklin also struggled at the end of last season and opponents are hitting .419 against him in 11 appearances since Sept. 1 — not including the two runs and three hits he allowed in 1 1-3 innings against Los Angeles in the NL division series.