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Monday, March 3, 2008

Pujols sounds off

Pujols sounds off
By Joe Strauss
Pujols slide
Albert Pujols scores on a double by Troy Glaus Sunday against the Florida Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium.
(Doug Benc/Getty Images)

JUPITER, Fla. — At the same time he acknowledges a sense of loss, Albert Pujols recognizes reality.

The Cardinals are a different team from last season. It is on Pujols to help make it a change for the better.
Cards 4, Marlins 5

Center fielder Jim Edmonds, shortstop David Eckstein and third baseman Scott Rolen are gone. Pujols, 28, possesses more continuous major-league service with the Cardinals than anyone else in the clubhouse. A team that made the postseason in five of Pujols' first six seasons is now widely perceived as rebuilding after a 78-84 hard landing. Pujols says he isn't in denial, but neither is he ready to concede anything because of all the new blood.

"It's a business. I don't play for them. They don't play for me. We play for the team," Pujols said Sunday after contributing two hits in the Cardinals' 5-4 exhibition loss to the Florida Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium. "We're getting ready for the season with the guys that we have. You miss the relationships with guys I've played with almost my entire career. You hate to see them leave. You have great memories. But you can't just lock yourself away.

"People are going to forget about it. You can't just come in and say, 'We miss Rolen. We miss Edmonds. We miss Eckstein.' Yeah, we do. But when you take the field you can't look at that because then you're just beating yourself."

Virtually certain to reach 300 home runs and 1,500 hits given a healthy summer, Pujols enters his eighth season coming off his least productive campaign, with 32 home runs and 103 RBIs.

He admits persistent elbow problems factored into a summer-long struggle in 2007 but believes the team's absence from postseason play last October allowed him time to recover.

"Instead of two weeks off, I had seven weeks," he said. "The same thing happened in 2003 (when the Cardinals finished third). I came into the next season feeling really good, and look what happened."

Pujols mashed 46 home runs and cranked 99 extra-base hits as the Cardinals won 105 games and reached the World Series. However, only catcher Yadier Molina, starter Chris Carpenter, lefthanded reliever Randy Flores and closer Jason Isringhausen remain from that club. Only Pujols and Isringhausen appeared that postseason.

"It's hard to walk in here and not see people like Jimmy, Eckstein and Rolen. But at the same time you get excited to see the young kids here who want to play the game and learn," Pujols said. "We don't have that many veteran guys even though we have a veteran bullpen. We have guys like myself, (nonroster outfielder Juan) Gonzalez and Molina. We'll help these guys like Mike Matheny, (Edgar) Renteria and (Mark) McGwire helped me in 2001.

"I still remember Darryl Kile saying, 'I'm doing this for you because you will do it for others.' That's what I'm doing."

Pujols is the brightest star within a smaller constellation. The situation now, according to manager Tony La Russa, is not new because of how injuries diminished Edmonds and Rolen in recent seasons.

"It may change for the media, but players on other teams still walk up to him like they would before. He leads the league in that," La Russa said.

Pujols says he is looking forward to the impact created by third baseman Troy Glaus, the team's likely cleanup hitter, who arrived in a trade that sent Rolen to the Toronto Blue Jays. The cleanup spot became one of many interchangeable roles last season as Rolen dealt with increasing shoulder discomfort before undergoing a third operation in a little more than two years.

"You're never going to see a team take more hits than we took last year," Pujols said. "It seemed whenever one guy came off the DL, one or two guys would go on at the same time.

"It was hard to see Rolen suffer with his shoulder. ... It hurt to see a guy play like that. He was trying his best, the same with Jimmy. It wasn't our year."

Pujols believes the mix of Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan, Gonzalez, Glaus and himself could represent something special.

"When you look at us ... this may be the most powerful lineup this organization has ever had," he said. "There is a lot of power in this team."

Glaus, Gonzalez and Pujols each has hit 40 home runs in a season. Ankiel hit 43 home runs last season between Memphis and St. Louis. Duncan hit 16 home runs in fewer than 250 at-bats before last season's All-Star break.

"You can't control what people think. All you can control is how you get ready. Only God knows who is going to win. I can't tell you we're going to win. But we're going to try to do better than we did last year," he said.

The Cardinals ranked only 13th in the league with 141 home runs last season, down from 184 in 2006. La Russa does not embrace any description of his team as reliant on home runs, but this year's lineup offers a decidedly American League flavor.

Pujols' left elbow will have much to say about his production. He consulted this winter with Birmingham orthopedist James Andrews and learned that ligament replacement surgery was an option. Pujols rejected that, hoping extra rest and a less aggressive weightlifting regimen would help the ulnar collateral ligament make it through one more season.

"For an outfielder, he told me it would be a nine-month recovery; for a first baseman, seven or eight months," Pujols said. "It would be the whole season for me. That's not something I want to go through if I can help it."

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