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Original Issue

Wild Card

While powering St. Louis toward a playoff berth, MVP candidate Albert Pujols may be having the greatest rookie year ever

Albert Pujols has a jersey in Cooperstown, at least two listings in the baseball record book, a half-dozen gloves to accommodate his defensive versatility and the credentials to claim—though his unwavering humility would never allow him to do so—that he is having the greatest rookie season in the history of the sport. To his lengthy list of first-year achievements, the St. Louis Cardinals phenom added a stunner last Friday night: He made normally grave St. Louis manager Tony La Russa break into a wild celebration.

Having watched his team squander 4-0 and 5-4 leads over the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, La Russa had a sinking feeling as Pujols batted with the bases loaded in the ninth inning with the score tied at 5-5. "I thought, We've put such a load on him all year, this is the situation for a double-play ball. There's not a great chance to get the run home," La Russa would say later.

On the third pitch from Pittsburgh righthander Omar Olivares--a diving sinker on the inside corner—Pujols golfed a grand slam that lifted the Cardinals to their eighth straight victory and sent La Russa into a whooping hysteria. "I lost my cool," La Russa said in his office. "The whole dugout erupted. He did it again."

The home run capped a five-RBI night for Pujols (his second such performance in four days) and gave him 14 RBIs in five games. He would drive in another run the next night, going 2 for 4 as St. Louis extended its winning streak to nine with a 4-1 victory. Pressing himself to come up with yet another description for Pujols's bang-up season, La Russa tried "incredible," realized he'd probably tossed that word around before and moved on to "obscene." Thankfully, he stopped there.

Talk about your wild Cards. Although Pittsburgh finally cooled St. Louis, ending its nine-game winning streak on Sunday with a 2-1 victory, the Cardinals still were 28-10 since Aug. 9. Much of the Cardinals' performance this year defies belief, including how they morphed in six weeks from a dispirited, mediocre ball club into a playoff contender, how they built the winningest rotation in the National League with the aid of a 170-pound rookie southpaw and a postseason-starved journeyman whom no team claimed on waivers, and how, amid all that, the greatest active home run hitter could feel as useless as a tailor in a nudist camp.

However, the most improbable aspect of this improbable season, which at week's end left St. Louis with a three-game lead over the San Francisco Giants, its closest pursuer for the National League wild-card berth, is the 21-year-old Pujols, who came to spring training as a nonroster player with one year of minor league experience, all but three games of it in Class A ball. Through Sunday, Seattle Mariners rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki was leading the American League in batting (.348) and was only eight hits shy of the rookie record of 233 set by Joe Jackson in 1911, but the impact of Pujols, who is six years younger than Ichiro, has been more powerful. At week's end Pujols was hitting .335, fourth in the National League and the best mark of any righthanded hitter in baseball; he had 36 home runs, leaving him two short of the league's rookie record, shared by Wally Berger and Frank Robinson (sidebar, page 47); he had more extra-base hits (83) and RBIs (126, with the record-breaking 120th prompting a request from the Hall of Fame for his jersey) than any other National League rookie ever; and he needed only 10 total bases to tie the league mark (352) set by Dick Allen in 1964.

Only one rookie, Hal Trosky of the 1934 Cleveland Indians, has hit 35 home runs while batting better than .320. Given his numbers through Sunday, Pujols is a virtual cinch to join him--and to have better on-base (.408 to .388) and slugging (.623 to .598) percentages than Trosky did. A lock for the National League Rookie of the Year award, Pujols has thrust himself into the running for the MVP award as well. Only Fred Lynn (Boston Red Sox, 1975) has won both awards in the same year. The testimonials have already begun.

"I've had many great players have MVP-caliber seasons," La Russa says. "Carlton Fisk, Harold Baines, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson. And maybe I'm guilty of putting more emphasis on what's happened most recently, but what this kid has done is the greatest performance of any position player I've ever seen."

Says Pittsburgh manager Lloyd McClendon, "I've never seen anything like it. He's quick to the ball with his bat, he hits to all fields, he rarely goes outside the strike zone, and no situation seems to rattle him. This young man has a chance to be quite a force for some time in this league."

"He's a freak," St. Louis second baseman Fernando Vina says of Pujols. "You don't walk into baseball and do what he's done."

Adds teammate McGwire, who set the major league record for rookie home runs, with 49 in 1987, "I believe he's been reincarnated, that he played before, in the '20s and '30s, and he's back to prove something. He fits every definition of what the MVP should be. If we didn't have him, well, I don't want to think where we'd be."

Only once (July 4-6) has Pujols played three consecutive games without a hit. Only once (June 29-30 against the Giants) has he played a series without a hit. When he encountered his only slump (a 2-for-35 skid into the All-Star break), Pujols cut it short, he says, by "not thinking about it. I knew it was going to happen. What I've learned this year more than anything is patience. Patience at the plate, yes, but patience in general."

As consistent as he has been, Pujols has boosted his production down the stretch. From Aug. 1 through Sunday, he had hit .368 with 48 RBIs in 46 games, including a league-high 23 RBIs in September. He'd been so reliable that righthander Woody Williams, who had been with the club since Aug. 2 (when he came from the San Diego Padres in a trade for leftfielder Ray Lankford), had never seen a game in which Pujols didn't reach base until Sunday, when he went 0 for 4.

Through Sunday, Pujols had started at least 29 games at each of four positions: third base, first base, rightfield and leftfield. (In spring training he also played shortstop.) He claims not to be bothered in the least by the itinerancy. "I want to be in the lineup every day," he says. "Playing anywhere is better than playing the bench." A parsing of his hitting statistics shows how little the position shifting has affected him: .344 in 54 games as a third baseman, .345 in 39 games as a first baseman, .292 in 39 games as a rightfielder and .366 in 32 games as a leftfielder.

"I do what I need to do to stay up here," Pujols said on Friday, after his grand slam broke the 72-year-old record for extra-base hits by a National League rookie, set by Johnny Frederick of the Brooklyn Dodgers with 82. "I don't try to think about records. I don't think about what Ted Williams did or what Frank Robinson did. I'm not trying to have a great year as a rookie setting records. I am trying to get my baseball team into the playoffs and World Series. That is the only record that I want."

The Cardinals have become accustomed to that sort of modesty and mature thinking from the married father of two young children. When recently asked, for instance, if he felt fatigued--Pujols has sat out only one game this season and has already played 16 more games than he did last year in the minors--the rookie replied, "No. I shouldn't be tired from playing baseball. I don't go out and drink and do a lot of things. I spend time with my family. That's my hobby. That's it. Family and baseball."

Pujols played himself onto the roster with a torrid and industrious spring training. The Cardinals had traded third baseman Fernando Tatis to the Montreal Expos last winter partly because, after watching Pujols for only one minor league season, in which he hit a combined .314 with 19 homers and 96 RBIs for three clubs, they thought he might be ready to man the position in St. Louis as early as 2002. Pujols was born in the Dominican Republic and moved at age 16 with his father, Bienvenido, to Independence, Mo. He attended tiny Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City before St. Louis selected him in the 13th round of the 1999 draft.

This spring La Russa asked Pujols, whose natural position is third base, to play the outfield; early on he made a diving catch with the bases loaded to take a hit from the New York Mets' Mike Piazza. When La Russa gave him a day off, Pujols voluntarily took ground balls at shortstop for 50 minutes. The next day an impressed La Russa put him at shortstop. He started a double play on the first ball hit to him. Finally, a few days before Opening Day, La Russa told Pujols that he'd made the team. "But he told me it might just be for the [opening] series in Colorado," Pujols says. "He didn't know if I would stay after that."

"What happened after that," McGwire says, "was we went to Arizona, and he bombed a double off the wall in center off Randy [Johnson], and we all went, 'Uh-oh. We've got something here.'"

Pujols quickly established himself as the most reliable hitter in the lineup as McGwire (who has never fully recovered from surgery on his right knee 11 months ago), centerfielder Jim Edmonds and shortstop Edgar Renteria struggled. Indeed, the team slowly changed from one built around veterans McGwire and Edmonds to one built around Pujols and 25-year-old rightfielder J.D. Drew, who missed 35 games after being hit on the right hand with a pitch in June and who through Sunday was batting .324 with 24 homers and 67 RBIs. McGwire, who says he cannot drive off his back leg because of his wobbly knee, was hitting only .182 at week's end, with 106 strikeouts in 269 at bats. Even when he popped his 25th homer last Thursday in a 9-1 win over the Pirates, so gloomy was Big Mac that he spoke about his team as if he were an accidental tourist. "I'm having a good time watching them," he says. "If I didn't have MCGWIRE on my back, I wouldn't be sniffing the field at all."

Even though Pujols has helped fill the run-production void left by McGwire, St. Louis was 54-52 and 7 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central when general manager Walt Jocketty acquired Williams, who was 8-8 with a 4.97 ERA at the time and who has never appeared in the postseason. "We were one starting pitcher short," Jocketty says, "and we noticed he was a good second-half pitcher." Lifetime in September and October, Williams was 13-8 with a 2.96 ERA through Sunday. He was 5-1 with a 2.77 ERA since joining the Cardinals.

"To tell you the truth," Williams says, "when I got here, it didn't seem as if the guys were heading in the right direction. I kept telling them that nobody's going to ruin my fun. I want to get there. That's a dream of mine, to play in the postseason."

St. Louis soon awakened, launching an 11-game winning streak on Aug. 9. Drew, Edmonds and Renteria heated up at the plate. Williams and slightly built lefthanded rookie Bud Smith, who threw a no-hitter on Sept. 3 in San Diego, made the back end of the rotation nearly as reliable as the front--righthanders Matt Morris, Darryl Kile and Dustin Hermanson, who have not missed a turn. As of Sunday, St. Louis was 16-5 in games started by Williams and Smith (3-0, 0.43 ERA this month).

For a team that looked lost for most of the summer, the Cardinals appeared remarkably self-assured after last Saturday's rather routine win. For instance, though two clubhouse televisions showed a game between the Houston Astros, whom they trailed in the Central by 4 1/2 games at week's end, and the Chicago Cubs, who trailed the Cardinals by 3 1/2 for the wild card, almost no one paid any attention to it. "I don't care much who wins that game," Morris said. "We have to take care of ourselves. If we do, we'll be in good shape."

Said Pujols, softly, "We are going to be in the playoffs. That's what I believe."

He had led his teammates this far. Who among them could doubt him now?