Texas cools off sizzling Pujols

Cardinals' Albert Pujols , who belted three home runs Saturday, did not get a hit in last night's game.
Cardinals' Albert Pujols , who belted three home runs Saturday, did not get a hit in last night's game. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 24, 2011

ARLINGTON, Texas - Would they walk him every time? Intentionally? Covertly?

Would the Texas Rangers challenge Albert Pujols, greatest hitter of a generation, coming off the greatest game a player could have?

Pujols hit three home runs in the World Series in Game 3 on Saturday, tying Babe Ruth, who did it twice, and Reggie Jackson. His five hits tied Paul Molitor, his six RBI tied Bobby Richardson and Hideki Matsui (against the Phillies in 2009) and his 14 total bases gave him a record all his own.

Plenty of other issues swirled last night.

The Cardinals held a 2-1 series lead, and 10 of the last 11 teams that had been tied at one win apiece and won Game 3 won the series. Bad news for Texas, a team that rode momentum and Cliff Lee's left arm to the World Series last season, too, only to be denied in this very ballpark.

The Rangers evened the series, 2-2, with a 4-0 win behind sizzling young lefty Derek Holland's 8 1/3 shutout innings.

Umpire Ron Kulpa, a St. Louis native and resident, blew a crucial call at first base Saturday in favor of the Cardinals. He was behind the plate last night, the venomous eyes of Texas fixed upon him (bloodshot, too; the Cowboys played yesterday afternoon). Kulpa was generous to Holland, but otherwise was unremarkable.

Pujols had transcended this series, so, last night, having homered in his three previous at-bats, he was all that mattered . . . especially since feisty Rangers manager Ron Washington vowed he would not bow to Prince Albert, the way Miguel Cabrera made him kneel late in the Rangers' ALCS win over the Tigers. After clobbering the Rangers in Game 3, Cabrera was walked five times in the next three games, but still managed two homers and two doubles.

"I can't sit over there on the sideline every time one of those guys comes up and throw up four fingers. We're major league pitchers. We're playing major league baseball," Washington said.

"We've got to be able to execute pitches to get done what we need to get done."

Closer Neftali Feliz got it done in the ninth, facing Pujols for the first time. It went foul ball, fastball, a changeup over the outside corner, then a soft flyball to center on a 99-mph fastball on the outside part of the plate.

"I got a pitch to hit," Pujols said. "The first one."

Feliz' bravado afterward was amusing.

"When I'm on the mound, I'm not afraid of anybody," he said. "It's the ninth inning. I have to do my job."

Holland, also facing Pujols for the first time, did his job, three times over. With nobody on base, he challenged Pujols, too.

In the first, with two outs, Pujols watched a 96-mph fastball sail high and wide, saw a refined curveball break over the outside corner, then rolled over a cutter, a soft grounder to shortstop.

In the fourth, with one out and down 1-0, Pujols took a breaking ball for a strike, then popped up a hanger for an out in foul ground beside first base.

In the seventh, now trailing, 4-0, all eyes focused on Pujols, who led off. He looked at a fastball on the outside corner (way outside) for strike one. Then Holland seemed to lose his taste for temptation; he fired inside, then a softy low, then way outside at 94, before shaking off catcher Mike Napoli four times. Napoli jogged out for a terse conference.

Pujols missed a 93-mph fastball on the outside corner, then tapped a 95-mph groundout on the outside corner back at Holland, who made the play. Pujols was a wallflower in Holland's coming-out party.

Sighs were heard as far away as Houston.

Such is the magnitude of Pujols' risen star.

"I got some good pitches to hit, and I missed them," Pujols said.

He didn't expect for the Rangers to stay away.

"He's a big-league pitcher. He's going to challenge every hitter, no matter who he is," Pujols said. "I wasn't taking it easy out there. He threw some pretty good pitches.

"I had to bring my A-game every time I faced him," Holland said. "I was doing everything I could to cool him off."

Even after last night, Pujols has never been hotter.

Had Pujols played in a less obscure place, he long ago would have replaced Alex Rodriguez and would have transcended the sport. Had Pujols been less prickly with the press, he might have ascended earlier, too.

With teams pitching around him and away from him, Pujols still batted .359 with 11 homers and 28 RBI in a 3-year playoff run that ended with a World Series title in 2006 . . . and with the national media tired of his petulance and irritability.

After Saturday's explosion, a truly Ruthian moment in a career of greatness, Pujols, like Barry Bonds before him, can be as snotty as he wants.

Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, Pujols' teammate for the past eight seasons, saw Saturday's eruption coming.

"I mentioned about his batting practice to someone, he does a couple bunts and his first swing he centers and hits 450 feet to the right of the visitors' bullpen out there," Carpenter said before last night's game. "You can just see it in him, and you can see when his swing is going the way it's supposed to go."

Carpenter is a three-time All-Star who adjusts to hitters' swings during a game as well as any pitcher, a knack he shares with former Blue Jays teammate Roy Halladay.

There was no adjustment to be made on Saturday.

"Last night was truly an Albert Pujols night," Carpenter said. "Those nights that you can just tell he sees every pitch, and when he does, he's not going to miss it and he hits it a mile."

Next up: cocky Taoist C.J. Wilson, tonight's starter for the Rangers.

Wilson isn't sweating Phat Albert, whom he intentionally walked, hit with a pitch and coaxed into a weak liner in Game 1.

"I know if I try to hit him, I'm going to hit him. If I try to walk him, I'm probably going to walk him," Wilson said. "If I try to get him out, I can probably pitch toward the edges of the strike zone and make it more difficult."

Good luck. Pujols went 0-fer last night, and he's eager to disrupt Wilson's quest for harmony. Because Pujols has disharmony in his future.

Pujols called off disappointing extension negotiations this winter when it became clear the Cardinals would not come close to the 10 years and $300 million he wants.

Maybe no one will else come close, either, despite his career .328 batting average and .420 on-base percentage, his 40 home runs per season, his 120 RBI per season, his two Gold Gloves, his nine top-5 finishes in National League MVP voting over his first 10 years . . . and his three MVP wins.

He finished ninth once, too.

He might not be a top-10 finisher this season. He hit a career-worst .299 with a career-low 99 RBI in 147 games - not the sort of season you hope for entering free agency.

He did, however, hit .336 during the Cards' run from 10 1/2 games behind in the wild-card race. He entered last night hitting .418 with five homers, 16 RBI, 12 runs scored and a .818 slugging percentage in 14 postseason games.

And, of course, he had that best game ever.

Send email to hayesm@phillynews.com

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