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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pujols again is swinging a hot bat

Pujols again is swinging a hot bat
By Rick Hummel
Albert Pujols
Albert Pujolswatches his home run leave Holman Stadium during the first inning of a Grapefruit League spring training baseball game against the Dodgers in Vero Beach, Fla., March 7.
(Orlin Wagner/AP)

PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. — Albert Pujols is hitting .415, he has five home runs and he's slugging .830 this spring. This hardly is man bites dog material as Pujols does this sort of thing almost every spring and he's repeated it to a large degree in each of his previous seven big-league seasons.

Only last year did Pujols ever struggle in the spring. Last year, he didn't have a home run virtually until the end of camp and was hitting mostly in the .260s, although manager Tony La Russa and Pujols ascribed some of the home-run drought to the wind blowing in constantly in Florida ballparks.

"It wasn't my normal spring last spring, but I felt great," said Pujols. "The wind was blowing in a lot. But I think this is one of the best springs I've had in my career. I started seeing the ball good the first week of the spring, which is not normal. Now, I'm working on different things and I'm getting good results."

Asked to amplify on those things, Pujols smiled and said, "Top secret. Can't tell you. Then the league is going to know what I'm working on."

Regardless of the atmospheric conditions last spring, hitting coach Hal McRae said Pujols "has had a much better spring than last year — just the way he's swinging the bat. I don't get involved in the numbers."

One of the numbers to keep an eye on perhaps this year is how many times Pujols will be pitched to, with such veterans as Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds gone. McRae said he has thought a lot about the protection that Pujols would be afforded.

"That's my main concern," said McRae. "The two lefthanded hitters (Chris Duncan and Rick Ankiel) have to perform around him. (Righthanded-hitting Troy) Glaus will give some support, but the key to me is the lefthanded hitters."

Pujols, however, said he wasn't worried about who would protect him and, in fact, spoke highly of the Cardinals' corps of young hitters, which includes Memphis-bound Colby Rasmus, who cracked a two-run homer as a reserve Sunday. Ankiel, who will bat fourth as often as not behind Pujols at the start of the season, also hit a two-run homer, giving him four home runs and 11 runs batted in, plus a .361 average, this spring.

"We've got Troy and we've got Ankiel and we've got Dunc," said Pujols, who also listed Skip Schumaker and Yadier Molina in the young-talent group.

"We've got a lot of young guys who bring excitement. They have a lot of talent and they have a good idea of what they want to do at the plate. They don't need a lot of teaching. Those guys already have an idea of how to play the game.

"If you would have told me there would be a lot of guys with no talent, it would be different but I'm excited."

Pujols was hampered by elbow and leg ailments last season. He so far has not had a problem with the torn ligament in his right elbow, and the hamstring injuries that dogged him appear to have abated as Pujols has shown speed on the bases and run them aggressively.

"Instead of resting two weeks, I rested six weeks in the offseason," he said. "I wish we had been playing in the playoffs but it wasn't a bad thing. I needed to heal from the injuries."

Pujols had just two of the Cardinals' 21 hits Sunday, both singles in a 14-4 rout of the New York Mets, and when he came into the clubhouse after being replaced by a pinch runner, he screeched, "Those kids can hit."

The reference was to a six-run surge in the ninth, highlighted by Rasmus, whom Pujols has taken under his wing a bit.

"I like the kid," said Pujols. "I like everybody on my team but he's a real good kid. There's not much you can teach the kid but when he gets more of an idea about hitting, I think he's going to be a really dangerous hitter because he's got all the tools.

"He can run, he can throw, he can field, he has some power and he can hit. Players like that don't come in the same package. Look at the spring training he's having (.310 with 12 walks and three homers). He's probably not going to make the team because we've got all these guys who are having better spring trainings than he's having.

"One thing I told him, 'Go back to wherever they send you and keep working hard. Don't be disappointed that you got yourself sent down. Hopefully, I'll see you in a month.'''

In his eighth season, Pujols said he didn't consider himself a leader as much as an adviser.

"I don't put all that responsibility on me being a leader," he said. "I'm not a babysitter. Everybody here knows what they need to do.

"There's some things that you have to control on the team. When you see a couple of guys bragging, not doing their job and not playing the game the right way, then you can say something to them.

"But, there's going a bunch of young guys here right now. To have them play the way they've played here in the spring brings a lot of excitement to the veteran guys and motivates us to play harder and to play with the energy they play with."

With David Eckstein, Rolen and Edmonds gone, the look of the Cardinals will be as different as it's been for a half dozen or so years.

"Change sometimes can be good," said Pujols, "but we cannot say anything until after the season and see how the changes go. You miss the guys who got traded or they couldn't sign again because they were in the same boat you were in 2006 and we won the World Series. Those are memories you are never going to forget and they were great teammates.

"But, at the same time, if I get traded tomorrow off this team, people are going to say the same thing — that you need to move on and move on with the guys that you have."

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