Pujols chosen St. Louis baseball man of the year

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Even after putting together the best two-season debut in major league history and finishing second to Barry Bonds in the MVP balloting, Albert Pujols knows he can do better.

The Cardinals' cleanup hitter was honored Tuesday as the Baseball Man of the Year by the city's chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. But like a lot of his teammates, Pujols' bat went silent in the playoffs as the Cardinals were eliminated by the Giants in a five-game National League championship series, so there's a bit of a sour aftertaste.

"I think if we would have hit a little better, including myself, I think we would have had a better chance," said Pujols, who was 5-for-19 with two RBIs. "I had a lot of opportunities to drive some runs in with men on third base with no outs and I didn't do my job.

"That's how it is. That's the game."

To manager Tony La Russa, that attitude is another indication of how far Pujols has come in such a short time.

"I'm glad to hear that," La Russa said. "I think that's really healthy, instead of just turning the page and saying everything's OK."

There also was room for improvement in the regular season. Pujols believes he got off to a bit of a slow start because he was pulling the ball too much.

"I was putting too much pressure on myself," he said. "I wanted to prove I could do it and I don't believe in the sophomore slump. You do put pressure on yourself, no matter what everybody tells you.

"And you don't have to do that."

Perhaps he's being too harsh on himself. He made the team at age 21 in 2001, making the jump from Class A, only because Bobby Bonilla entered the year on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, and has never looked back.

He batted .314 last year with 34 home runs and 127 RBIs, becoming the first player in history to begin his career with a .300 average, 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored in each of his first two seasons. He led the NL with 61 RBIs after the All-Star break, including 49 in the final 49 games.

"It's just phenomenal, the career he's had in two years," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "You just wonder how he can keep improving on it."

Pujols played wherever La Russa needed him -- first base, third base, left field and right field -- most of his first two seasons. His offense picked up even more once the Cardinals acquired third baseman Scott Rolen last July and Pujols moved to left field full time.

He's not sure that's the reason, though.

"Moving all over the place doesn't bother me on offense because I still have to grab the bat and hit," Pujols said. "It's good to come to the park and know you're just going to play left field.

"But it hasn't bothered me the last two years, so if I need to play a position because somebody's hurt or because they want to give a day off to somebody I want to do it."

Pujols likely will be the everyday left fielder this year, with Rolen set at third, Tino Martinez at first and J.D. Drew in right once he recovers from knee surgery.

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