Ailing Pujols sits one RBI shy of MLB history

Tuesday, September 25, 2007
St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols limps to first base on a two-run single during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Saturday, Sept. 22, 2007, in St. Louis. Sidelined by a strained left calf muscle and forced into games as a pinch-hitter recently, Pujols is one RBI away from becoming the first player to get 100 RBIs in his first seven seasons. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, file)

The Cardinals star can become the first player to drive in 100 runs in each of his first seven seasons.

ST. LOUIS -- One precious swing at a time, Albert Pujols closed in on another career milestone.

Pinch-hitting success had the St. Louis Cardinals' star, hobbled by a strained left calf muscle, one RBI away from becoming the first player to get 100 RBIs in his first seven seasons. He had missed five straight starts entering the team's season-ending seven-game trip, while doing his part by going 2-for-2 with a bases-loaded walk and four RBIs.

"It's a tough situation and obviously it's a situation that I don't want to be in," Pujols said. "Obviously, right now I don't have any choice."

Pujols, who had not played first base since he was a late lineup scratch last Tuesday, started Monday's game against the Milwaukee Brewers. When not starting, he found ways to contribute. He had a liner off the left-field wall for a long RBI single to help spark a three-run ninth-inning rally in Sunday's 4-3 victory over the Houston Astros, an RBI single as part of a five-run seventh on Saturday, and a bases-loaded walk on Friday.

Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols singled home two runs during a pinch-hit appearance during Saturday's game against the Houston Astros. (JEFF ROBERSON ~ Associated Press)

Sunday's hit and the walk both gave Pujols opportunities to again torment Astros closer Brad Lidge, whom he famously victimized with a mammoth ninth-inning go-ahead homer in Houston in the 2005 NLCS.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had Pujols pinch hit for David Eckstein in the ninth inning Sunday night. That might have cost Eckstein, a fan favorite throughout his three seasons in St. Louis, his final plate appearance at home.

Eckstein can be a free agent after the season.

"I'm pinch-hitting with Albert Pujols, who can do a little more damage than David," La Russa said. "I think our club deserves to take the shot and I'm sure David understands that."

Pujols knew Eckstein would not mind.

"There's no selfishness here, we win as a team and we lose as a team," Pujols said. "I hope we can sign David back, but this is a business and I don't make those decisions."

Pujols, batting .323 with 31 homers, takes his limited role seriously. He stretched, watched videotape of previous at-bats against Lidge and took practice cuts before the ninth inning.

He has six career pinch hits with five RBIs, yet his seven seasons with La Russa gave him a good idea when his chance would come.

"You have to be ready to hit and not let it catch you by surprise," Pujols said. "So I was getting loose around that time and I was ready to go when he called me."

Rick Ankiel followed Pujols' hit with a game-winning two-run triple. Pujols was happy for the former pitcher who fell into a prolonged slump after news earlier this month surfaced of his involvement with human growth hormone in 2004.

Ankiel totaled six hits the last two games of the final homestand, ending a 17-game home run drought on Saturday.

"I think it was great to see that for him, with all those things he has gone through the last couple of weeks," Pujols said. "I think it couldn't happen to a better person than him, so I'm happy for him."

Notes: The Cardinals announced record season attendance of more

than 3.5 million fans on Sunday while in something of a defensive mode. The last six games of the final homestand, the team elected not to reveal the no-show count. ... Before the game, La Russa remained coy about his future. He said hadn't thought about Sunday's game perhaps being his finale at home. "Since we've been eliminated I have been thinking a little bit more about it than I was before," La Russa said. "It's not the priority right now."

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