Leyland refuses to be beat by Pujols
Thursday, June 18, 2009
The Tigers are contributing to the slugger's MLB-leading intentional walks.
ST. LOUIS -- Albert Pujols is the only major league player with at least 10 intentional walks. He's got 21.
That illustrates two things: how dangerous a hitter he is -- and the lack of protection he has in a light-hitting lineup.
For example, the Detroit Tigers walked the St. Louis Cardinals' star intentionally in his first two plate appearances Tuesday, both times with a runner on second and one out.
Hardly situations fraught with peril. But manager Jim Leyland offered no apologies for his strategy against a player whose 23rd homer later in an 11-2 rout was such a rocket it nearly left Busch Stadium.
Before the game, Leyland said he would take the bat out of Pujols' hands even if Dizzy Dean was on the mound. Leyland is close friends with Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and he served as a St. Louis scout from 2000 to 2005, observing Pujols up close from the day he broke into the big leagues in 2001.
"I'm not going to let Albert beat me," Leyland said. "To me, he's the best hitter in baseball, he's the best player in baseball. We're not going to allow it."
Even though it was early in the game, La Russa said Leyland made the right calls. He noted the pitching matchup, with Justin Verlander opposing Adam Wainwright, led to expectations for a low-scoring game.
Plus, La Russa added, "Albert's definitely earned some respect. A lot of respect."
Pujols entered Wednesday leading the NL with 23 homers and was near the top with 58 RBIs despite getting few pitches to hit. He was batting .326, with a .446 on-base percentage helped by 49 walks -- many of the unintentional-intentional variety.
The Cardinals scored three or fewer runs in 10 of the previous 15 games before breaking out for 14 hits against Verlander and the Tigers. So opposing teams couldn't be blamed for trying to take Pujols out of the equation.
He's making the most of the chances he gets, however, totaling five homers in five games entering Wednesday night against the Tigers. Tuesday's liner off Ryan Perry was estimated at 446 feet -- the longest at Busch Stadium this season.
Leyland said there was no second-guessing his strategy, even if it didn't work in the first inning. In the second, cleanup hitter Chris Duncan tapped out to first after Pujols drew another intentional walk.
"It could have worked in the first inning, but [Yadier] Molina blooped one in," Leyland said.
"You guys can have a field day if you want," he told reporters, "but if you want me to pitch to Albert Pujols, say it before the game."
Pujols is more exposed than in the past, more prone to chase pitches out of the zone. There's a good reason.
Cardinals third baseman Troy Glaus has been out all year following offseason shoulder surgery with no return yet projected. Ryan Ludwick's numbers are way down (.241, nine homers, 31 RBIs) after his breakout season in 2008 -- 37 homers and 113 RBIs. Rick Ankiel also has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness, and Duncan was batting just .182 in the cleanup slot before going 3-for-5 with his fifth homer on Tuesday.
"When he makes solid contact," La Russa said of Duncan, "he's got as much power as anybody on our club. He's getting closer and closer."
Last year, Pujols led the NL with a franchise-record 34 intentional walks despite more solid contributions from the supporting cast. He must be patient, and pounce on his chances, while waiting for the rest of the lineup to come around.
"He's really pitched tough, and to me what's unbelievable about it is his production," La Russa said. "Nobody ever throws the ball down the middle to him."