© 2006 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
SAN DIEGO -- If any single player casts a long shadow over this National League Division Series, it's Cardinals powerhouse Albert Pujols, who has the ability to alter the result of a game with one mighty swing.
That's not to denigrate any of the other participants. As Preston Wilson properly pointed out Monday, there's a long history of previously unsung heroes having a major postseason impact. Brian Doyle of the 1978 Yankees. Buddy Biancalana of the 1985 Royals. Scott Spiezio of the 2002 Angels.
Back then, just like he is on this Cardinals team that opens the best-of-five series against the Padres at PETCO Park, Spiezio was an ancillary, but essential part of the Angels. Like Barry Bonds of the Giants, the team the Angels defeated in that World Series, Pujols is the goods. His presence in the No. 3 slot has a ripple affect on the entire lineup.
"I think Albert is the Most Valuable Player in the National League," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said Monday. "I'm not taking anything away from [the Phillies'] Ryan Howard. "He's got those stats that just jump out at you. Pretty remarkable. He had a better year than last year."
Howard hit 58 homers this season, his first full one in the Major Leagues. But his bat seemed to turn into sawdust the last two weeks of the season, as the Phillies lost their grip on the Wild Card race. No. 58 came on Sept. 22, meaning Howard didn't homer in Philadelphia's last nine games.
Pujols, in contrast, just kept on trucking.
His three-run homer in the eighth inning on Sept. 27 against the Padres, broke a seven-game losing streak for the Cardinals, who finished 83-79 and needed every last victory to out-distance Houston in the NL Central.
Nineteen of Pujols' 49 homers won ballgames. That's what you call impact.
"Albert's a force that has to be reckoned with," said Padres catcher Mike Piazza. "You don't want him to beat you, but on the same note, if you have to pitch to him you roll the dice. It's definitely a gamble."
Padres manager Bruce Bochy rolled the dice that night and let Cla Meredith pitch to Pujols with runners on first and second and Spiezio in the on-deck circle. Two nights earlier, Meredith had made Pujols look silly, striking him out swinging on a sinker.
Meredith to Pujols? Meredith to Spiezio, who's clutch Game 6 homer helped save the 2002 World Series for the Angels? It's your pick. Bochy picked Pujols.
When asked Monday if the results of that decision might have altered his strategy, manager Bruce Bochy was contrite.
"Well, now that I look back on it, I'd say [yes]," Bochy said. "I wouldn't have done the same thing because I saw the ball leave the ballpark. Did it plant a seed? We'll see. We'll see when we have that kind of situation come up [in this series]."
Bochy could use the Mike Scioscia approach. The Angels manager intentionally walked Bonds seven times in the 2002 World Series. Walking Bonds, who hit four homers in the seven games, is a losing strategy during the course of the regular season. The Giants score 30-to-35 percent of the time when Bonds is put on base. Bonds has walked a Major League record 2,426 times in his 21-year big-league career. He's also scored 2,152 runs.
But in that World Series, had Bonds been given even two more chances to hit a home run, the Angels might have lost.
Pujols hasn't really been afforded the Bonds treatment yet, mostly because guys like Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Reggie Sanders have made opposing teams pay when they pass on pitching to Big Albert over the years. Pujols has never walked more than 97 times in a season. Bonds has the record with 232 walks in 2003 season, with 120 of the free passes handed to the slugger intentionally -- also a record.
"Almost every time they've tried it they've been burned," La Russa said about walking Pujols. "So they say, 'Well, that didn't work. We'll try and get Albert out.'"
Bochy has a tendency to challenge big hitters, anyway. Bonds has hit 85 of his 734 homers against the Padres, far and away his most against any opposing team. But too many times, that strategy of going right at Bonds has been disastrous, just as it was last week with Pujols in St. Louis.
"We had a one-run lead at the time," Bochy said about that situation. "Do you put the winning run on second and tying run on third? That's a difficult call."
It wasn't for Buck Showalter in the day when he managed the Diamondbacks. Holding a two-run lead in the ninth inning with the bases loaded, Showalter walked Bonds intentionally to force in a run. Brent Mayne flied out to end the game.
You have to admire the guts. You have to admire the moxie and creativity.
Jake Peavy, the Game 1 starter for the Padres, said that Pujols "was obviously not human" and that he wouldn't balk at walking him every time in a critical situation.
"I mean Pujols is the guy you cannot let beat you in this lineup," Peavy said.
Bochy needs to consider it very intently this week, when the player who casts the longest shadow on the series has a chance to win another crucial game.