Renteria, Pujols, Rolen in top four spots in order
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
Major League RBI leader Scott Rolen will hit cleanup for the National League. (Scott Rovak/Cardinals)
HOUSTON -- Last year's All-Star Game began like a Cardinals parade, with Edgar Renteria, Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols hitting in the 1-2-3 slots for the National League. Tuesday night's game will be a slight twist.
During Monday's player-interview session, Pujols and Rolen were informed for the first time of the NL starting lineup, and they liked what they heard.
Renteria leads off, followed by Pujols, Barry Bonds and Rolen. Then comes Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent and Roger Clemens.
"It's just great," Pujols said. "If you're in the middle of Sosa, Bonds, [Jim] Thome and those guys, how are you going to pitch that lineup?"
The Cardinals' lineup lately has featured Renteria-Pujols-Rolen in the 2-3-4 spots. At last year's All-Star Game, Bonds hit cleanup, followed by Gary Sheffield, Todd Helton and then Rolen in the seven hole. Given the somewhat unimaginable power collection handed over to NL manager Jack McKeon for this game -- a lineup that so many people seem to be talking about around Houston this week, even sans Ken Griffey Jr. -- Rolen was visibly tickled to hear that he will remain at cleanup.
"I didn't know I was. I think I might be the only guy not protecting somebody," Rolen deadpanned. "That's a huge honor right there.
"Barry's hitting third? Those are pretty nice table-setters, don't you think? I don't think you're hitting ahead of Sammy Sosa unless you're leading off or hitting eighth to get the top of the order back up."
Pujols and Rolen were their typical low-key selves at the player interviews, explaining humbly to swarms of journalists why the team from St. Louis is seven games ahead in the NL Central and why they are just happy to be part of these festivities along with Renteria. They will find some satisfaction not only to be so prevalent in the top of that wicked batting order, but also in looking around the field and seeing that the only infielder not wearing the "birds on the bat" is at second base (Houston's Jeff Kent).
Most common question: Are you surprised to be seven games up in the division?
"I don't know how to answer that, really," Rolen said. "If you go back to Spring Training, I don't know how many people were talking about a seven-game lead at the All-Star break. And if you were, then you didn't hear it from us. Whether it's one game or seven games, we've played well enough to be where we are."
"I don't think we're surprised at this lead," Pujols said. "You guys might be surprised. Everybody's playing a good game, we're giving each other credit. We're not just using the long ball. I guess just being seven games up, you can't take things for granted. We have to just push it in the second half and stay healthy."
This is the third All-Star Game each for Rolen and Pujols, and the fourth for Renteria. Last year it was a starting quartet for the Cardinals, with Edmonds in center, Pujols in left and Rolen/Renteria on the left side of the infield. This will be identical to the Yankees' faction on the American League side, where Jason Giambi is at first base, Derek Jeter is at shortstop and Alex Rodriguez is at third.
Although Rolen's 18 home runs are five fewer than Bonds and four fewer than Pujols, it's hard for anyone to argue with putting No. 27 in the cleanup spot. He has been a run-producing machine in the first half with a Major League-leading 80 RBIs.
Someone asked Rolen for his opinion about being whispered as "the first-half MVP."
"What does that mean?" he responded as politely as possible. "What does that count for? They don't give that award to anyone as far as I know.
"I see a lot of pitches. I have been fairly consistent with my approach. It's satisfying."
Albert Pujols / 1B
Weight: 225 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
"That guy's unbelievable," Pujols said of Rolen. "I'm really happy for him. He worked hard. He's amazing."
"Amazing" continues to be an adjective often used to describe Pujols. Despite what could be constituted as a slow start by his standards, and despite going through a learning process to play a pretty mean first base, he came to Houston with a .304 average, 22 homers and 60 RBIs. His 72 runs scored are only one away from Vladimir Guerrero's Major League lead, reflecting not only Pujols' ability to get on base, but also how enjoyable life can be with Rolen hitting right behind you in 2004.
During the mass-media session, Peter Gammons of ESPN asked Pujols one question that might be of special interest to Cardinals fans: "Who in your opinion plays this game the right way?"
"Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio," Pujols said without hesitation, as if in a tribute to two of Houston's local heroes who were not chosen for these festivities. "I know I'm saying this about a team in our division, but they are the guys I look up to. Just the way they prepare themselves. They play hard day in and day out. Scott Rolen, too.
"You need a role model when you're playing the game of baseball, and I think of guys like Rolen, Bagwell and Biggio who play hard every day."
Pujols said he was "just happy to be here," and Rolen said it did not matter to him whether winning this game might set the stage for a World Series Game 1 to open at Busch Stadium this October. In fact, he winced when asked that, a reference to Tuesday's winner getting the Fall Classic home-field advantage.
"You go out and put on a uniform in the All-Star Game," he said, "and if you're not prepared to play, something's wrong with you."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.