Prince Albert can become king
Pujols has chance to build legend with strong NLCS vs. Mets
NEW YORK -- He's been known as Prince Albert virtually from the first time his anvil arms swung through a Major League pitch. The road to the throne passes through New York, of course, so it might be time for the coronation.This could be the week Albert Pujols becomes king. His St. Louis Cardinals' National League Championship Series against the Mets beams a bright light on him, and the length of the shadow Pujols casts could suggest his ultimate baseball legacy. That may come off as a preposterous thing to say about someone who has rewritten the record books to such an extent during his six-season career, he might as well be authoring his own edition. Only man to hit 30-plus homers in each of his first six seasons, only man to also score 100-plus runs and hit .300-plus in each of his first six seasons, one of only four to drive in 100-plus in each of his first six seasons (and the others were some cats named Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Al Simmons). But a mere trickling of that has come in New York, and even less has come in the World Series. You know, those two proving grounds that appear to be swallowing up Alex Rodriguez. No one disputes that Pujols is a true Cardinal. But in four previous postseason appearances, he has delivered the Cards into one World Series, in which he was unable to drive in a run in the course of that four-game sweep by Boston in 2004. So, Mr. Pujols, you will be on. This series has a very simple plotline. (a) To beat the Cardinals, the Mets must stop Pujols. (b) Can they keep him from beating them? (c) Are they willing to even let him try? The most remarkable aspect of another remarkable Pujols season wasn't that 20 of his 47 home runs accounted for St. Louis' winning runs -- a Major League record, one better than Willie Mays' clutch index in 1962. For good measure, Pujols did it again in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Padres. No, the most remarkable thing was opposing managers continuing to give Pujols chances to hurt them. Prince kept coming up in key situations, and managers kept giving him the keys to their kingdoms.
Mets manager Willie Randolph and his pitching coach, Rick Peterson, will face a quandary. They do not like to give away baserunners. In fact, only three of the other 15 NL pitching staffs issued fewer intentional walks than did the Mets.Of course, during the regular season, the Mets weren't facing a daily dose of the Cardinals and Pujols. They did meet five times (Pujols sat out one of the games between the teams), and the Mets didn't fare better -- or wiser -- than the rest of the league. Pujols clipped the Mets for two homers and nine RBIs -- while being issued only one walk. Managers keep playing with Pujols fire even though he isn't exactly camouflaged in the St. Louis batting order. Prince wasn't quite Snow White to the Seven Dwarfs, but injuries and sub-par seasons weakened the Cards' lineup. Pujols drove in 42 more runs than any other St. Louis batsman (Scott Rolen), and homered 25 more times than did anyone else (Chris Duncan and Rolen). Yet he was granted "only" 28 intentional walks. Barry Bonds, a .270 hitter with 26 homers and 77 RBIs, was given 38. One of baseball's Cardinal rules has given Pujols so many opportunities to play hero. No, not the St. Louis Cardinal rule that every game must have an Albert moment; rather, the generic commandment that it is a sin to intentionally put a potential lead run on base. By piously observing that rule when Pujols steps in at crunch time, managers chance potential quickly turning into genuine. There's every reason to believe the Mets won't run from Pujols -- even if Rolen's worn-down shoulder does not respond to treatment and the Cards' biggest backup threat remains out of the lineup. Chief among those reasons is Mets pitchers' past success in containing Pujols -- which, in his case, means keeping him in the park. Pujols has hit Game 1 starter Tom Glavine at a .450 clip (9-for-20), but while driving in three runs he has never taken the left-hander deep. Against the six other New York pitchers who saw Division Series action against Los Angeles -- and thus are the logical go-to guys in this Championship Series -- Pujols is a collective 16-for-46, with only two home runs, both off John Maine. When it gets late and there is a serious situational right-hander on the mound -- a Chad Bradford, a Guillermo Mota, an Aaron Heilman -- it might be awfully tempting to issue a challenge, not four wide ones. How the Mets resist that temptation may determine whether Pujols hits them upside the head and crowns himself.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.