Pujols dispels feud fury

Slugger now says All-Star game nixing ‘wasn’t a big deal.’
Friday, July 13, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:52 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Albert Pujols wants to make this absolutely clear: He is not feuding with Tony La Russa.

“People want to start World War III with me and Tony, and I think they’re picking the wrong person,” the St. Louis slugger said Thursday during a workout. “I’ve got so much respect for Tony, and he’s got so much respect for me.”

Pujols was the only player from the defending World Series champion Cardinals to be picked for the All-Star game. He also was the only non-pitcher that La Russa, the NL manager, did not use in a 5-4 loss Tuesday night.

La Russa said he saved Pujols in case of extra innings and vowed that the relationship will “stand the test of time.”

“It wasn’t a problem, there isn’t a problem,” La Russa said. “It’s been real clear about how I feel about Albert. Nothing ever changes that. Nothing ever will.”

Pujols was upset after being left on the bench.

“If I wasn’t expecting to play, I wouldn’t have come up here,” he said right after the game in San Francisco.

Two days later, back in St. Louis, Pujols sounded more calm.

“Was I disappointed because I didn’t get in the game? Of course, because I’m a competitor,” he said. “Does that make it a big deal? No, it wasn’t a big deal to me, but I guess it was a pretty big deal to everybody else in the country.”

Pujols and La Russa had not talked before the workout, but Pujols expected a conversation and an explanation soon.

“People can talk and waste their saliva, I guess, because they’re not going to get me angry or Tony angry,” Pujols said. “We’ll sit down and talk. I’m looking forward to seeing why he says he didn’t put me in the game.”

Last October, La Russa and Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen had an icy relationship. La Russa benched the banged-up Rolen in the postseason, and they didn’t talk during the winter.

Pujols could merely watch as Philadelphia’s Aaron Rowand flied out with the bases loaded to end the All-Star game. La Russa said he’d have loved to have called on Pujols, but had to guard against a position player being injured if the game went to extra innings.

“Because you manage in the moment, yeah, I wish I sent him out there,” La Russa said. “But the game would have either ended there or ended later if somebody got hurt, and there’s a way to fix it.”

Since the 2002 game ended in an extra-innings tie, managers have tended to hold a hitter back just in case. La Russa said if he ran out of position players he’d rather forfeit than use a pitcher, and called for Major League Baseball to alter rules to allow for more re-entry.

La Russa is just as cautious in regular-season games, almost always saving his backup catcher in case of injury.

Pujols is batting .310 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs despite being mired in a career-worst home run slump of 22 games and 74 at-bats.

The 2005 NL MVP anticipated a chance in the ninth inning Tuesday night, stretching and putting heat on his back and hamstrings, but said he understood when La Russa stuck with Rowand.

Pujols added if somebody had to be left out, he was glad it was him, rather than Rowand or J.J. Hardy of the Brewers, both first-time All-Stars.

“The fans, they obviously want to see me in that situation,” Pujols said. “But you have too many great hitters. Rowand, he’s having a great year and I was pulling for him to come through.”

Pujols said the resulting controversy has been an embarrassing distraction for a team trying to rally in the second half.

The Cardinals, who won their first World Series in 24 years last fall, are 40-45 and 7 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central heading into a 10-game trip that begins today with the first of three games in Philadelphia, followed by three in Miami and four in Atlanta.

ECKSTEIN READY TO PLAY: David Eckstein spent the All-Star break working to escape the 15-day disabled list.

Eckstein spent several hours each day at Busch Stadium proving he’s ready to shake off a back injury. He came off the DL on Thursday in a flurry of moves the Cardinals made heading into the first game after the break.

“Everything’s looking good,” Eckstein said. “I’m so anxious, I just want to get back on the field and be a contributor.

“The trainers want me on the field as soon as possible because I’ve become a bit of a pest.”

Eckstein, batting .313 with two home runs and 12 RBIs, has been on the DL since June 14 with a knot in the middle of his back that has cleared up after anti-inflammatory injections early last week. He was the World Series MVP last season — this year, the banged-up Cardinals are 7 1/2 games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central.

The Cardinals put right-hander Todd Wellemeyer on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained elbow sustained in a freak accident. He hurt himself when he banged his right elbow on his left knee following through on a pitch Sunday and has been ordered not to throw for three weeks.

Wellemeyer was taken out after five scoreless innings in a 7-0 victory over the Giants as a precaution, and the elbow tightened considerably the next day. An MRI exam on Monday confirmed the injury, which team doctors compared to a sprained ankle while prescribing rest.

Wellemeyer recalls banging the knee on a pitch in his final inning. He said that happened to him three years ago, but didn’t result in injury.

This one knocked Wellemeyer, 3-1 with a 4.19 ERA, out of action four days after the Cardinals moved him back to the bullpen and reinstated Kip Wells to the rotation. Wells, 3-11 with a 5.92 ERA but coming off a successful stint in relief after being demoted in mid-June, will start tonight in Philadelphia.

Injured center fielder Jim Edmonds is close enough to returning that he’ll accompany the team on its 10-game trip to start the second half tonight. Edmonds arrived for the workout expecting to make the trip.

“The fact he’s making progress is exciting,” manager Tony La Russa said. “He knew how he felt. I came to the park expecting to have an open mind.”

Edmonds, batting .238 with seven homers and 24 RBIs, has been on the DL since June 16 with a pinched nerve in his lower back related to offseason surgery on his shoulder and foot that hindered his offseason conditioning. The Cardinals had been anticipating he’d return later in the month but the timetable has been moved up after Edmonds’ successful workout on Thursday.

“I did everything today, and hopefully I can put a program together and get in the lineup as soon as possible,” Edmonds said. “I’m trying to do everything they want me to do to allow me to play.”

Infielder Brendan Ryan was optioned to Triple-A Memphis to make room for Eckstein and right-hander Andy Cavazos was recalled from Memphis to replace Wellemeyer.

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