Pujols back among leaders after weekend HR binge

Albert Pujols laughed at the scrutiny over his longball drought,

saying it could’ve lasted twice as long – three times, even – and

he still would’ve been the same dangerous presence at the

plate.

The three-time NL MVP, generally acknowledged as the best player

in the game, wondered why so many people were obsessed about his

105 at-bat stretch between home runs that ended late last

month.

The slump certainly raised questions throughout baseball. Did

his surgically repaired right elbow hurt? Were his occasionally

troublesome hamstrings barking? Was he stressed out over impending

free agency? Was he somehow slowing down at age 31?

”What’s the big deal?” Pujols said Friday afternoon. ”Give me

a break.”

A few hours later, the St. Louis Cardinals slugger began a binge

that muted all concerns.

In a weekend sweep of the Chicago Cubs, Pujols homered four

times and drove in eight runs. He hit a game-winning homer in the

12th inning Saturday. He then launched a game-ending shot in the

10th inning Sunday, punctuating it with a prolonged follow-through

and a high-stepping dance into a home plate celebration.

The power show put Pujols among the league leaders with a

team-leading 13 homers and thriving even with cleanup hitter Matt

Holliday on the 15-day disabled list with a quadriceps injury.

So much for all that fuss.

”Albert,” said Rodrigo Lopez, who served up Sunday’s big home

run, ”is pretty hot right now.”

Pujols clearly knew what he was capable of doing. Prior to the

series opener against the Cubs, he posed his own question.

”How many times did I hit 14 home runs in one month? Search it,

search about it. You should know that,” Pujols challenged. ”You

know what the problem is, the good things never hit the

paper.”

Answer: Pujols hit 14 in April 2006 and June 2009. The point:

He’ll sometimes have a slow month, such as this May and September

2002 when he hit only two, and July 2009 when he had four.

Cardinals batting coach Mark McGwire received the same treatment

during his home run heyday in the late 1990s, facing questions

about perceived slumps after as few as a dozen at-bats. At one

point in those days, Big Mac loudly asked media assembled by his

locker stall if they had wives and families to go home to.

Now, it’s worse.

”The expectations of the media, the social network,

everybody,” McGwire said. ”They want to have a new story and talk

about something.”

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said Pujols is capable of fixing

his own problems. Evidence is the unrelenting metronome production

Pujols has cranked out the best opening decade to a career in major

league history with a solid string of 30-homer, 100-RBI, .300

average seasons.

During Pujols’ first real bout of adversity, McGwire said there

was no need for the two to spend more time than usual searching for

answers. A bit of fine-tuning and hours of repetition would be

enough, he said.

”It’s hard not to talk about how great this guy is and how hard

he works. It’s just unbelievable,” McGwire said. ”I really think

it all comes down to pitch selection and the pitches he sees.

”By the time the year is over people will see his numbers where

they’ve always been.”

Contrary to evidence, La Russa has been banging the Pujols drum

all season, conceding only that the star was lunging after pitches

the first week or 10 days of the season. Along with a so-so average

that was up to .278 after a 10 for 23 splurge, Pujols was tied for

the major league lead with 16 double-play balls.

”A couple guys said he had buzzard’s luck,” La Russa said.

”In Albert’s case I was surprised that after 10 years of making a

statement, that there was that much concern.”

After Sunday’s game, La Russa said he witnessed ”greatness in

person.”

”We see it every day for 10 years, two months. Hoping for a

lousy single and he hits it out of the park.”

A handful of times during his breakout weekend, Pujols declared

that nobody in the major leagues had been hitting the ball as hard

as he had the past month, and that he’d simply had far more than

his share of misfortune with balls that got caught at the warning

track and with liners that were snared.

”You follow me, you can’t believe I’m hitting .260,” Pujols

said. ”There’s nothing I can do. That’s it, there’s nothing you

can do.”

The first truly humid homestand no doubt contributed to Pujols’

surge. The power alley to left-center field is suddenly a jet

stream, and the estimated distance of his no-doubt-about-it homer

on Sunday was 446 feet, deep into the bleachers.

Pujols homered twice Saturday and La Russa said both shots

probably would have hung up in the air had Busch Stadium not been

bathed in 90-plus degree temperatures and shirt-soaking

conditions.

”The elements got him,” La Russa said. ”That’s why it was an

unnecessary conversation for a long time about his power. Nothing

wrong with his power.”