ST. LOUIS (AP) - This time, it really was Albert Pujols' final at-bat of the season, and perhaps with the Cardinals.
Cameras flashed furiously at Busch Stadium in appreciation of the three-time NL MVP, who struck out in the seventh inning of Game 7.
One last send-off in a season that ended with a World Series title. Now, it's time to start talking.
After 11 seasons with the team that drafted him, Pujols can become a free agent for the first time.
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said he couldn't imagine the Cardinals without Pujols and explained that the front office will do all it can to keep him in town.
"They're going to try like heck to make it work, and we'll see if it can work or not," La Russa said. "The organization is going to try to keep him here and Albert wants to stay here. Best effort."
Pujols played a quiet, supporting role for the Cardinals in their Series-clinching 6-2 victory over the Texas Rangers on Friday night with a walk, hit by pitch and two runs scored. That's been the case most of the Series except for his Game 3 outburst, when he joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players to hit three homers in a World Series game while matching records with five hits and six RBIs.
Pujols totaled one hit the rest of the Series, batting .240 overall with five intentional walks.
But just like 2006, when Pujols batted .200 with one RBI as the Cardinals polished off the Tigers in five games, the Cardinals needed his presence in the lineup, at first base and in the clubhouse, to pull it off.
The 31-year-old Pujols has repeatedly expressed his desire to stay put in a city full of fans who believe he can do no wrong and with an organization whose chairman referred to him as irreplaceable.
After the game, Pujols was focused on celebrating, not contract talks.
"You know what? I'm not even thinking about that," Pujols said. "I'm thinking about, you know, we're the world champions and I'm going to celebrate and whenever that time comes, you know, then we'll deal with it. But right now, you know, I enjoy this. You never know when it's going to be your last one so I'm going to enjoy this one like the same way that I did my first one. So thank you to all the fans for the support."
The Cardinals exercised a $16 million option on Pujols' contract after last season. The slugger rejected a multiyear extension that included a small percentage of the franchise during the winter and cut off negotiations on the first day of spring training.
And that's where it stands.
Neither side has had much to say on the subject. Earlier in the postseason, general manager John Mozeliak refused to handicap the odds on keeping him.
The Cardinals have addressed several offseason concerns already, picking up two-year options on twin aces Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, plus signing Lance Berkman to a one-year deal. That should make it easier to concentrate on the key question: Can they afford Pujols?
If Pujols leaves, the Cardinals could move Berkman to first base and put Allen Craig, who had a breakout October, in right field, and have millions left to spend on upgrades elsewhere.
After earning $111 million the last eight seasons, Pujols hits the market, along with Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder. Both could exit the NL Central.
The Cardinals' payroll was about $110 million this season, and chairman Bill DeWitt anticipates it'll be in that range next season. So far, the Cardinals have committed about $70 million to a half-dozen core players.
It remains to be see whether Pujols' historic performance in Game 3 will raise the price tag. Or whether his complementary role the rest of the Series will bring it down.
La Russa, who needs 36 wins to move into second place on the career list for managers, has said several times that Pujols is the best player he's ever had. He batted .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs each of his first 10 seasons.
Pujols hit 37 home runs this year, running the 30-homer streak to 11 years, and barely missed on the other two with a .299 average and 99 RBIs.
Locally, Pujols is revered almost on a par with the great Stan Musial and is sure to merit a statue or two outside Busch Stadium one day. Between innings of Game 6, a female fan in the upper deck held up a homemade sign celebrating the Pujols era with No. 11 atop the team's trademark birds on bat.
Any time Pujols comes to bat, the crowd comes to life. Even an infield popup initially gets fans screaming, if it's hit high enough.
A cautionary note: Though there's no question he's among the elite players in the game if not the best, Pujols' numbers in nearly every major offensive category are on a three-year decline, including hits (186-183-173), doubles (45-39-29), homers (47-42-37), RBIs (135-118-99), walks (115-103-61), average (.327-.317-.299) and on-base percentage (.443-.414-.366).
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