ST. LOUIS — A month and a half into the season, the St. Louis Cardinals are waiting for the real Albert Pujols to show himself.
The reigning NL batting champion and two-time MVP runner-up was batting a so-so .278 heading into a stretch in which the Cardinals play 13 of 16 games on the road, beginning with Tuesday night’s 5-4 loss to the New York Mets. That’s 81 points below his .359 average last year and 56 points below his career average.
He hasn’t hit much in the clutch, either. The Cardinals’ No. 3 hitter was hitting .250 with runners in scoring position and had 24 RBIs, fourth on the team, despite being in the best run-producing spot in the lineup.
Last year, Pujols batted .374 with runners in scoring position, and he had 43 RBIs by the end of May.
“I’ve been feeling good since the season started,” Pujols said. “I think I’m hitting better than my average shows.
“It’s just a matter of time. You know, a ball here or there and it changes.”
Still, the air of anticipation remains when Pujols strides to the plate. He almost always makes contact. Despite his impressive power stroke, he has struck out only nine times in 144 at-bats.
“He hasn’t taken one at-bat this year where I haven’t thought he might do something good,” La Russa said. “Even though he hasn’t been crushing the ball, I don’t think he’s been that far off.”
La Russa can’t help but wonder if Pujols’ newfound wealth is a factor in his relative struggles. At 24, he is the highest-paid player in team history after signing a seven-year, $100 million contract. Last year, Pujols made $900,000. La Russa said he knows of some “real bad examples” of players trying too hard to prove themselves after hitting the jackpot.
“I know you get worn out listening to it, but they’re men, not machines,” La Russa said. “He’s really strong between the ears so he’s probably going to be able to deal with it.
“But him hitting .290 right now is different than it was before he was recognized as one of the game’s best players.”