CHICAGO -- Home runs come a lot easier than triples for Albert Pujols.
The St. Louis star managed one of each Friday as the Cardinals beat the Chicago Cubs 8-3 to kick off the final weekend before the All-Star break.
"I was a little tired, but I don't mind," Pujols said of legging out his first three-bagger since September 2007, to help the Cardinals build an early a 3-0 lead.
His liner went into the left-fielder corner where Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano had trouble picking it up.
"When I hit it I was actually thinking it was a double. I saw [Alfonso] Soriano bobble it once, so I had a pretty good opportunity to keep going," Pujols said.
After Chicago tied it on Derrek Lee's three-run homer, Pujols put first-place St. Louis up for good with his 32nd homer, a drive to straightaway center in the fifth that landed in a basket above the ivy-covered wall.
"He's dangerous at the plate and on the base paths, too," Chicago starter and loser Rich Harden said. "He's one of the smartest baserunners out there."
Pujols reached base four times, as did teammate Ryan Ludwick, who drove in four runs. Ludwick has regrouped after coming off the disabled list (hamstring) in May.
"For a four- or-five week period when I came back, I couldn't hit water if I fell out of a boat," Ludwick said. "I just felt [today] like we put together good at-bats."
Chris Carpenter (7-3) worked six innings, allowing seven hits and three runs with six strikeouts. The Cardinals' ace improved his career record against the Cubs to 9-3, including 6-2 at Wrigley Field.
The victory put the first-place Cardinals eight games over .500 and knocked the struggling Cubs 4 1/2 games out of the lead in the NL Central. St. Louis has now won the opener on each of its three stops on a 10-game road trip.
"That's how you want to start a series," Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said.
Harden (5-6) threw 101 pitches in five innings, giving up seven hits and four runs. Aaron Heilman relieved in the sixth and the Cardinals quickly added four more runs.
St. Louis loaded the bases on a single and two walks and Ludwick delivered a two-run single that put St. Louis up 6-3.
Rick Ankiel walked to reload the bases and the Cards got another run when Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano couldn't hold Yadier Molina's shallow fly. No error was charged on the play because Soriano picked the ball up and was able to force Ankiel at second. Heilman then threw a wild pitch to allow the fourth run to cross.
"At the last moment my eyes went off the ball," Soriano said. "The way we played today, we're not supposed to play like that."
"It was embarrassing today, you know. We were outplayed and outhustled," he said.
Lee's three-run homer, an opposite-field drive to the right-field bleachers, followed singles by Harden and Ryan Theriot, was his 17th of the season. That was by far the Cubs' highlight as they lost their third straight.
"We didn't play well," he said. "It was a little disappointing, knowing the importance of this series. ... Just like that, you're 4 1/2 back. It's dangerous territory."
Ludwick had a sacrifice fly in the first and three singles for St. Louis.
Carpenter has allowed only four homers all season. ... Pujols drew an intentional walk in the first, his 32nd this season. ... Mark DeRosa, who spent the previous two seasons with the Cubs, returned to Wrigley Field sooner than expected. DeRosa was with the Indians three weeks ago when they visited for an interleague series. On Friday he was back in Chicago with the Cardinals, who acquired him from Cleveland in a June 27 trade. "It's kind of weird," said DeRosa, who is on the disabled list with a wrist injury. "I found myself on a last place team and within a couple of days I'm in first place in the NL Central, battling against the Cubs."