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03/25/05 8:00 AM ET

Pujols-powered Cardinals ready to fly

Perennial MVP candidate eyes return to World Series

JUPITER, Fla. -- For all the wonderful things the St. Louis Cardinals accomplished last season, one bittersweet memory lingers for Albert Pujols.

Pujols hit .331 with 46 homers and 123 RBIs as the Cardinals won 105 games and ran away with the National League Central Division title by 13 games en route to a berth in the World Series. In the World Series, however, the Cardinals were swept by Boston.

"To play as well as we did all year, to go as far as we did, then get swept, that was very disappointing," Pujols said. "[The Red Sox] played great, they deserved to win, but it was very tough [to take]."

Pujols may get another shot at the Fall Classic this season.

On paper, the Cardinals have fewer questions than any team in the division. To a rotation that already had four starters who won 15 or more games last season, general manager Walt Jocketty added lefty ace Mark Mulder, who won 17 games for Oakland last season and 72 over the last four years.

Pujols, third baseman Scott Rolen, right fielder Larry Walker and center fielder Jim Edmonds are back to form the nucleus of an everyday lineup that should once again be among the best in baseball. The Cardinals scored 855 runs last year, tops in the National League.

The Cardinals did say goodbye to a few significant players, including shortstop Edgar Renteria, catcher Mike Matheny, pitcher Woody Williams and second baseman Tony Womack. But with veterans David Eckstein stepping in at shortstop and Mark Grudzielanek at second base, as well as highly regarded youngster Yadier Molina behind the plate, Pujols and the Cards are confident the losses won't be felt as hard as some have predicted.

"We did lose some very good players and some great leaders, but I know these [new] guys are good players too," Pujols said. "We're all working hard and we're getting ready to get back to where we were last year, and I think if we keep working hard, we'll be OK."

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Besides, it's not like the Cards lost Pujols, arguably the best player in the game. He is the only player in Major League history to hit 30 or more home runs in each of his first four years in the game.

Pujols -- at No. 3 -- was one of three Cardinals to finish in the top five in the National League Most Valuable Player voting last season. He was fourth in the voting in 2001, and second in 2002 and 2003.

Now 25, he seems on track for yet another spectacular season, perhaps one that will carry these Cardinals back to October.

"I don't know if we'll win 105 games again -- that would be very tough, because you have to get some breaks to win that many," he said. "And I think the [NL Central] is going to be tougher this year. I thought it was the toughest division in baseball last year, and it might be again this time because everybody is stronger."

If the Cardinals can make it back to the postseason, perhaps that elusive MVP award will also not escape the Cardinals first baseman again.

"I don't think about those things," Pujols said. "My goal is to stay healthy and help this team win. The rest of that stuff I don't worry about. The goal is always the same, the [World Series championship] ring."

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.