Pujols on cusp of busting out of slump?

Bonus notes from our MLB on Fox broadcast of the Cubs-Cardinals game on Saturday …

A scout who attended Saturday’s game still wasn’t convinced that Albert Pujols is back.

Pujols hit a two-run homer, an RBI double and a two-out, walkoff homer in the 12th inning against the Cubs, reaching base in his final five plate appearances.

The scout, however, noted that all three of Pujols’ hits came on sliders. Pujols’ bat, the scout says, looks just a touch slower than it has in the past.

Well, maybe.

But Pujols was at it again Sunday, hammering an 88-mph fastball from Cubs right-hander Rodrigo Lopez for another extra-inning, walk-off homer.

Not an overpowering pitch, and not a wise decision by the Cubs to give Pujols another chance to beat them.

But suddenly, Pujols’ season isn’t looking so bad.

After 61 games – arguably the most trying 61 games of Pujols’ career – the Cardinals first baseman was on pace to finish with 35 homers, 101 RBIs and an .826 OPS.

Those numbers weren’t close to Pujols’ averages in his first 10 seasons – 41 homers, 123 RBIs, a 1.050 OPS. But they were not far off, either.

The question, as Pujols marches toward free agency, is whether he is starting to decline at age 31 or snapping out of the first extended slump of his career.

Naturally, Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire believes the latter.

“I truly believe that at the end of the year he’ll be exactly where he’s been the last 10 years,” McGwire says.

“These things happen. I don’t care who you are. Mantle. Ruth. Roger Maris. Yastrzemski. Everyone goes through this.

“Unfortunately, this is the year he is sort of going through it. But he’ll be better because of it.”

McGwire acknowledges that Pujols’ balance was a bit off in the first month, when scouts noted issues with his lower half. But at this point, McGwire says, “It comes down to pitch selection, and really just trusting your hands.”

Pujols and the Cardinals say he has hit the ball harder in recent weeks – he’s 12-for-27 with five homers and two doubles in his past seven games. His .261 batting average on balls in play indicates that part of his problem was simply poor luck.

On the other hand, Pujols has produced the highest groundball and lowest line-drive rates of his career. He has hit only seven doubles after averaging 43 in his first 10 seasons, and grounded into a major-league leading 16 double plays. Pitchers are attacking him with fastballs more than in recent seasons.

Is he back? Pujols told me in a post-game video interview that he was never gone.

Time will tell. More than 100 games remain.

 

Best phone call ever

 

The Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter says he usually lingers in the clubhouse after games. But on Thursday, he showered quickly and bolted in frustration after making the final out of a one-run loss for Triple-A Memphis with runners on second and third.

Carpenter, 25, had nearly completed his 25-minute drive home when he received a call on his cell phone from the Cardinals’ Triple-A manager, Chris Maloney.

“I need to see you in my office,” Maloney said.

Carpenter turned around and drove back to the ballpark, figuring that Maloney wanted to talk to him about his at-bat.

But when Carpenter arrived, Maloney shut the door to his office and broke into a big smile.

“You’re going to the big leagues,” Maloney said.

Carpenter made his debut Saturday, going 1 for 5 and playing a strong game at third base.

 

The new Campy

 

You’ve got to love Tony Campana, the Cubs’ rookie center fielder who is 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, if that.

Campana, 25, is a cancer survivor — he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma when he was seven, underwent surgery to remove a tumor, then endured eight months of chemotherapy and eight years of checkups. He says his experience is part of the reason he plays with such abandon, knowing every game could be his last.

On a lighter note, Campana has yet to hit a fence-clearing home run in more than 1,200 professional at-bats — though he notes proudly that he did hit an inside-the-park homer last season in the Southern League playoffs at Double-A.

Campana says his teammates give him a hard time when he fails to hit balls out even in batting practice. But Cubs manager Mike Quade says he actually appreciates that Campana does not try to be someone he is not.

“You don’t see guys with speed play the little man’s game anymore,” Quade says. “He plays the little man’s game. He has to. He knows it.”

Quade says he and the Cubs coaches sometimes muse about who would win a footrace between Campana, the Reds’ Drew Stubbs and the Brewers’ Nyjer Morgan.

It would be fun to watch.

 

Umps stay cool

 

Before Saturday’s game, I visited the umpires with our producer, Pete Macheska, and other MLB on Fox personnel.

Such visits are informal — we talk casually, go over a few technical things. But on this day, I was curious: How would the umps deal with the 97-degree heat?

Turns out they’re trying some interesting new solutions.

One is essentially a form-fitted cold pack that the plate umpire can slip under his chest protector; each pack lasts about 30 minutes, and the umps can change them several times during games.

Another is a chilled headpiece that any of the umpires can use to lower their body temperatures between innings; the umps allowed me to try one on for a photograph that I sent out on Twitter.

Finally, there is a third, refrigerated covering that an umpire can wear over his upper torso for relief after games.

Me? I’m going to start wearing chilled bow ties.

 

The return of a prodigal son

 

When outfielder Lou Montanez signed a minor-league contract with the Cubs, he wanted to return the faith that the team once showed in him.

“It’s almost like you want to give them something back for drafting you so high,” Montanez says.

The Cubs made Montanez the third pick overall in 2000. Adrian Gonzalez went first to the Marlins that year, Chase Utley 15th to the Phillies, Adam Wainwright 29th to the Braves. Most of the other first rounders, like Montanez, were busts.

Montanez, 29, never reached the majors in his first stint with the Cubs. He left for the Orioles as a minor-league free agent in 2007, spent parts of ‘08, ’09 and ’10 in Baltimore, then became a free agent again.

Here’s where the story gets interesting: Montanez actually wanted his career to come full circle, so he contacted the Cubs about returning to the organization.

Cubs general manager Jim Hendry called the gesture “admirable,” but made Montanez no promises about getting to the majors. Montanez forced the issue by batting .369 at Triple A, and the Cubs’ injuries created an opening.

It took him 11 years, but he finally made it to Chicago.

 

The growth of Lohse

 

Talking with Cardinals right-hander Kyle Lohse on Friday, he seemed a long way from the days when he was an emotional young pitcher, butting heads with Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.

Lohse, 32, is now a mature veteran who appreciates his recovery from an unprecedented condition for a baseball player — compartment syndrome in his right forearm.

The way Lohse explains it, the casing around his forearm muscle would tighten when the muscle would expand, and he required surgery to relieve the pressure.

The injury, Lohse said, is more common for motocross drivers, cross-country runners and rowers. But one positive came out of his experience.

Lohse had to increase his concentration to make pitches when he was trying to fight through his condition. He says he is applying the same focus now that he is healthy, and it has made him a better pitcher.

 

Another Tiger cub

 

Cubs rookie infielder DJ LeMahieu attended LSU, the same school that produced former Cubs infielders Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot.

 

Theriot, now with the Cardinals, and Fontenot, now with the Giants, often work out and take batting practice with the LSU players during the offseason.

 

LeMahieu, then, was quite familiar with both players. Theriot even called LeMahieu to congratulate him the day the Cubs made him their second-round pick in 2009.

Theriot was still with the Cubs then, and he called from a noisy clubhouse after a big win. LeMahieu’s girlfriend answered the phone and refused to believe it was Theriot, thinking one of LeMahieu’s teammates was playing a prank.

LeMahieu, 22, eventually met up with Theriot and Fontenot at spring training.

“They were really good to me,” LeMahieu says. “They made sure I didn’t do anything stupid.”

 

Right way Jay

 

Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay concedes he hit a wall last season, batting .396 before the team traded Ryan Ludwick, .239 after that.

What few realized was that Jay had played more than 170 games the previous season between the minors and winter ball in Venezuela, and had virtually no time off.

Jay, 26, got much more down time last offseason, and says he also has learned to pace himself and be smarter about his work.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is a fan.

“He has a real good feel for the game,” La Russa says. “He rarely makes mistakes. He knows how to play.”

 

Around the horn

 

* La Russa remains intrigued by the idea of getting Allen Craig more time at second base. Craig would provide more offense than most second basemen. If he improved his quickness, he could be adequate defensively.

Another Dan Uggla? Who knows?

“I’m just trying to have fun with it,” Craig says. “I try to go out there and act like a second baseman.

“I believe in my athletic ability. I try to keep it simple. I’m a smart guy. I know where to go on cutoffs and relays.”

*Cardinals reliever Ryan Franklin, who shows signs of coming around, appreciates the faith that La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan and general manager John Mozeliak showed in him.

“They haven’t forgotten what I did and what I’m capable of doing,” Franklin says.

*The weather in Chicago during the first part of the season was rough on the Cubs, but Quade recently received a reminder of how trivial such complaints can be. His cousin Marie lost her home in the tornado in Joplin, Mo.

*La Russa on his ongoing recovery from shingles: “I’m much less miserable. There is still some misery, but no comparison to before.”

La Russa, even when healthy, can seem joyless, but man does he love to win. I waved as I walked by his office minutes after Pujols’ walk-off homer Saturday, and he let out a joyous laugh, tickled over what had just happened.