Pujols back among leaders after weekend home run binge

Albert Pujols rounds third and heads home after hitting a walkoff home run in the 10th inning of Sunday’s 3-2 victory over the Cubs at Busch Stadium.

Albert Pujols rounds third and heads home after hitting a walkoff home run in the 10th inning of Sunday’s 3-2 victory over the Cubs at Busch Stadium. Photo by The Associated Press.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Albert Pujols laughed at the scrutiny over his longball drought, saying it could’ve lasted twice as long — three times, even — and he still would’ve been the same dangerous presence at the plate.

The three-time NL MVP, generally acknowledged as the best player in the game, wondered why so many people were obsessed about his 105 at-bat stretch between home runs that ended late last month.

The slump certainly raised questions throughout baseball. Did his surgically repaired right elbow hurt? Were his occasionally troublesome hamstrings barking? Was he stressed out over impending free agency? Was he somehow slowing down at age 31?

“What’s the big deal?” Pujols said Friday afternoon. “Give me a break.”

A few hours later, the St. Louis Cardinals slugger began a binge that muted all concerns.

In a weekend sweep of the Chicago Cubs, Pujols homered four times and drove in eight runs. He hit a game-winning homer in the 12th inning Saturday. He then launched a game-ending shot in the 10th inning Sunday, punctuating it with a prolonged follow-through and a high-stepping dance into a home-plate celebration.

The power show put Pujols among the league leaders with a team-leading 13 homers and thriving even with cleanup hitter Matt Holliday on the 15-day disabled list with a quadriceps injury.

So much for all that fuss.

“Albert,” said Rodrigo Lopez, who served up Sunday’s big home run, “is pretty hot right now.”

Pujols clearly knew what he was capable of doing. Prior to the series opener against the Cubs, he posed his own question.

“How many times did I hit 14 home runs in one month? Search it, search about it. You should know that,” Pujols challenged. “You know what the problem is, the good things never hit the paper.”

Answer: Pujols hit 14 in April 2006 and June 2009. The point: He’ll sometimes have a slow month, such as this May and September 2002 when he hit only two, and July 2009 when he had four.

Cardinals batting coach Mark McGwire received the same treatment during his home run heyday in the late 1990s, facing questions about perceived slumps after as few as a dozen at-bats. At one point in those days, Big Mac loudly asked media assembled by his locker stall if they had wives and families to go home to.

Now, it’s worse.

“The expectations of the media, the social network, everybody,” McGwire said. “They want to have a new story and talk about something.”

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said Pujols is capable of fixing his own problems. Evidence is the unrelenting metronome production Pujols has cranked out the best opening decade to a career in major league history with a solid string of 30-homer, 100-RBI, .300 average seasons.

During Pujols’ first real bout of adversity, McGwire said there was no need for the two to spend more time than usual searching for answers. A bit of fine-tuning and hours of repetition would be enough, he said.

“It’s hard not to talk about how great this guy is and how hard he works. It’s just unbelievable,” McGwire said. “I really think it all comes down to pitch selection and the pitches he sees.

“By the time the year is over people will see his numbers where they’ve always been.”

Contrary to evidence, La Russa has been banging the Pujols drum all season, conceding only that the star was lunging after pitches the first week or 10 days of the season. Along with a so-so average that was up to .278 after a 10-for-23 splurge, Pujols was tied for the major league lead with 16 double-play balls.

“A couple guys said he had buzzard’s luck,” La Russa said. “In Albert’s case I was surprised that after 10 years of making a statement, that there was that much concern.”

After Sunday’s game, La Russa said he witnessed “greatness in person.”

“We see it every day for 10 years, two months. Hoping for a lousy single and he hits it out of the park.”

A handful of times during his breakout weekend, Pujols declared nobody in the major leagues had been hitting the ball as hard as he had the past month, and he’d simply had far more than his share of misfortune with balls caught at the warning track and with liners that were snared.

“You follow me, you can’t believe I’m hitting .260,” Pujols said. “There’s nothing I can do. That’s it, there’s nothing you can do.”

The first truly humid homestand no doubt contributed to Pujols’ surge. The power alley to left-center field is suddenly a jet stream, and the estimated distance of his no-doubt-about-it homer Sunday was 446 feet, deep into the bleachers.

Pujols homered twice Saturday and La Russa said both shots probably would have hung up in the air had Busch Stadium not been bathed in 90-plus degree temperatures and shirt-soaking conditions.

“The elements got him,” La Russa said. “That’s why it was an unnecessary conversation for a long time about his power. Nothing wrong with his power.”

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