Pujols shows promise in return

Everything was in place for a storybook ending.

Albert Pujols, playing in his first game since June 19, stood at the plate with one out and a runner on first base in the ninth inning.

The Cardinals had rallied from an 8-0 deficit to tie the score on a home run by Jon Jay off Reds closer Francisco Cordero leading off the inning.

Pujols had bounced an RBI single over third baseman Scott Rolen in his previous at-bat, reducing the Cardinals’ deficit to one run.

The crowd at Busch Stadium could sense what was coming. Everyone watching on television could sense what was coming.

But there was no storybook finish, at least not Wednesday night.

Cordero fell behind Pujols 3-0. Pujols looked at a fastball down the middle to make it 3-1. But then Pujols bounced into a 5-4-3 double play on the next pitch and the Cardinals wound up losing in 13 innings, 9-8.

In the big picture, the Reds avoided what could have been a crushing loss, staying within three games of the Cardinals, albeit in fourth place. The game proved quite taxing, the Reds using seven relievers, the Cardinals six. Not good with both clubs facing strong offenses in their final four games before the All-Star break – the Reds visit the Brewers, the Cardinals host the Diamondbacks.

And so it goes in the NL Central, which is evolving into a wacky four-team scrum. The surprising Pirates own the division’s best ERA by more than a half-run. The defending champion Reds, disappointing all season, lead in run differential, though only by a measly one run over the Cardinals.

The race figures to hinge on the usual factors – which teams stay the healthiest, which ones make the best additions to their rosters. The non-waiver deadline is 24 days away. The August waiver period will offer another set of possibilities. But on the question of health, the Cardinals finally are providing answers.

No, right-hander Adam Wainwright isn’t coming back, but Pujols returned on Wednesday night, looking much like the Pujols who had produced a 1.143 OPS in his final 22 games before suffering a non-displaced fracture of his left radius (forearm) just 19 days ago.

Pujols went only 1-for-6. He saw only 17 pitches in his six at-bats. But overall, he looked surprisingly good for a guy returning about a month earlier than expected from an injury to his bottom hand. Pujols stung the ball hard in several of his at-bats, twice hitting lined shots to right field.

The Cardinals’ pitching is wobbly. Their bullpen ranks near the bottom of the NL. But it’s easy to see them winning the division if their 3-4-5 of Pujols, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman remains intact, particularly if they follow through on plans to supplement their bullpen.

Third baseman David Freese and infielder Nick Punto recently came off the disabled list. Catcher Gerald Laird and outfielder Allen Craig will follow soon. The Brewers and Reds also are relatively healthy, though Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun has missed the last four games with a sore left calf. The Pirates are enduring with 10 players on the DL, including third baseman Pedro Alvarez, left fielder Jose Tabata and catchers Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder.

Pujols, of course, looms as the biggest potential difference-maker in the division. His fracture is not yet healed, yet his risk of re-injury supposedly is small. Yes, problems in the wrist area are notoriously tricky for hitters, but how can anyone judge Pujols by normal standards? He missed only 13 games with an injury that was expected to sideline him for 4 to 6 weeks.

His initial diagnosis produced considerable debate over the impact his injury might have on his pending free agency. That debate will resume if he suffers further injury or a decline in performance. But there was no hint of either on Wednesday night.

No, there was only Pujols standing at the plate with the winning run on first base in the ninth inning, running the count to 3-1, preparing to send Busch Stadium into a frenzy.

The storybook ending did not happen, but the possibility of it was quite real. Considering that the date was July 6, not August 6, the Cardinals could not have asked for anything more.