Cardinals keep winning without former MVP Pujols

Tony La Russa was always protective of his players, so it comes

as no surprise that the former St. Louis Cardinals manager swims

against the current when it comes to Albert Pujols.

It’s been two years since the three-time NL MVP played his last

game in St. Louis, sprayed some champagne, boarded a parade

vehicle, waved to adoring fans lining the streets and then left

town.

The Cardinals have done plenty of celebrating without Pujols.

It’s probably the biggest reason his potent bat and

larger-than-life presence have been largely forgotten in St.

Louis.

But La Russa, who retired after the 2011 championship season and

lives in California, said Pujols’ accomplishments always come up

whenever he’s in town.

”He’s talked about in heroic terms, he’s honored,” La Russa

said in an interview with The Associated Press. ”They don’t have

Albert, they don’t have Big Mac, either, but that doesn’t mean they

don’t recognize what they’ve done and meant to the city.”

Pujols put up 11 Hall of Fame-worthy seasons to start his

career, becoming part of a veteran core that included Jim Edmonds,

Scott Rolen and Chris Carpenter and made St. Louis a perennial

contender. He quickly blossomed into one of the majors’ most

dangerous hitters, clearing a .300 batting average, 30 homers and

100 RBIs in each of the first 10 seasons, and just missing that

standard in his final year in town.

La Russa forecasts a big comeback next season for Pujols, whose

two post-St. Louis seasons with the Angels have been the low points

of his career. He was shut down this season in mid-August with a

partially torn plantar fascia on the bottom of his left foot, an

injury that had dogged him with the Cardinals.

”He’s still as perfect as he’s ever been,” La Russa said.

There are two Stan Musial statues outside Busch Stadium in

tribute to the greatest player in franchise history and a Hall of

Famer who was one of the best of all time.

Pujols used to be the modern-day Stan Musial.

Now, he’s old news.

Catcher Yadier Molina’s mentor was and remains Pujols, and he

said Friday his close friend was ”enjoying the vacation.” He’s

hopeful Pujols will be back to full strength for next season.

But then he’s ready move on to present tense.

”Why are you talking to me about that?” Molina said. ”He’s

doing good, he’s happy for us, he’s a great teammate, he’s a great

person.”

Pujols personified the Cardinals from a national standpoint and

his absence was duly noted last fall when they went to the NL

championship series. This year, his name has rarely come up.

On the field or in the sports bars.

The Cardinals are in the Series again because they have a

well-rounded team, one perhaps they couldn’t have constructed if

Pujols and his $20 million-plus salary was still around.

”The first few months, they didn’t want to lose him,” La Russa

said. ”Now they understand, everyone understands. It’s just the

business and the Cardinals have proven to be very sharp.”

The 33-year-old Pujols is due $212 million over the next eight

years from the Angels, and the Cardinals have payroll flexibility.

Carlos Beltran is around because Pujols is gone, and he has

superior numbers the last two seasons.

Molina, Adam Wainwright and Allen Craig have multiyear

extensions, decisions that were easier to make with Pujols’

contract off the books.

The Cardinals are loaded with budding pitching stars, too.

”Look at those babies on the other side, I know why they didn’t

sign Pujols,” Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said. ”They have like

10 kids at the age of 22 that they’re going to have to give 10-year

deals at the age of 25 – at the same time, all of them.”

The Albert Pujols Foundation headquarters is still in St. Louis.

So is his charity golf tournament, now helmed by former teammate

Matt Holliday.

Pujols is a respected clubhouse presence in Anaheim, but his

value on the field has plummeted. The Angels have next to nothing

to show from the additions of Pujols and Josh Hamilton and are

coming off their worst season in a decade.

The Cardinals led the National League with 97 wins and Craig,

the new first baseman, had Pujols-like production in the clutch,

leading the majors with a .454 average with runners in scoring

position.

”From an organization standpoint we’re in a good spot,”

general manager John Mozeliak said. ”I think a lot of people are

asking the what-ifs and there are no what-ifs for us at this

point.

”It didn’t work out and it was just deploying resources and

trying to put a good team out there.”

From thousands of miles away, Pujols helped. The compensatory

first-round pick the Cardinals got from the Angels last year is

rookie sensation Michael Wacha, who is 4-0 with a microscopic 1.00

ERA in the postseason after beating the Red Sox to even the Series

at a game apiece.

”We’ve been fortunate,” Mozeliak said. ”A lot of young

players have come up and produced and we’re grateful for

that.”