By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
There are ways to retire Albert Pujols, although at times they seem impossible to figure out. He can, like mortal hitters, get jammed on an inside pitch, though he's just as likely to move his hands quickly through the strike zone, still managing to thump the ball with the fat part of the bat. Occasionally, he'll even chase a pitch outside, off the plate -- though not too often, and when he does, he still might drive it to right field.
But the St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman, as great as he is, can be pitched to. The statistics say so. "He's not hitting 1.000," Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson pointed out.
Pujols, though, is as fine a hitter as there is in the game, and last night, his one mighty swing helped the Cardinals to a 2-0 victory over the Nationals, snapping Washington's five-game winning streak. The guts of the victory at RFK Stadium -- which helped keep the Cardinals safely ahead in the National League Central -- were provided by right-hander Jeff Suppan, who tossed 7 2/3 innings of scoreless ball, allowing five hits. The highlight reel, though, once again belonged to Pujols, who torched Pedro Astacio for a solo homer in the first, his 44th of the year, his fifth in three days.
"The best hitter?" Robinson answered, repeating a question about Pujols's stature in the game today. He considered it. "Overall, yeah. Absolutely."
The Nationals and Astacio, who was effective through his 6 1/3 -inning outing, know Pujols can be retired, and they did it twice last night in front of an announced crowd of 25,937, sprinkled with Cardinals fans throughout. He led off the fourth by grounding to shortstop, and with two outs in the sixth, he popped harmlessly to third base.
"But we've found out twice already this series," Robinson said, "if you make a mistake -- just like with [Philadelphia's] Ryan Howard -- he's going to hurt you."
There, then, would be Pujols's chief adversary for the National League's MVP award, an honor Pujols won last year. Howard leads the NL with 53 homers and 134 RBI, ridiculous numbers considering this is just his second season in the majors. Pujols tied Washington's Alfonso Soriano for second in the home run race last night. Only Howard has more than Pujols's 116 RBI, and the Cardinals' first baseman has played in 16 fewer games because he spent time on the disabled list earlier in the year. Pujols has a higher batting average (.321 to .309), on-base percentage (.424 to .403) and slugging percentage (.686 to .665).
But Pujols's most significant advantage over Howard? Check out how valuable he is to the Cardinals, whose lineup is without center fielder Jim Edmonds, out with post-concussion syndrome. Pujols hits .373 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.350 in Cardinals' victories, .259 with an OPS of .817 in losses.
The Nationals have had the distinction of facing both Howard and Pujols within a week's time. The conclusion?
"I wouldn't say one's better than the other," catcher Brian Schneider said. "They both hit the ball to all fields. And obviously, they have power."
Obviously. In a three-game series at RFK last week, Howard went 5 for 9 with two homers, including a monstrous blast to right-center field. In the first two games of this series, Pujols has just two hits, both homers -- one that broke up Ramon Ortiz's shutout bid in the ninth inning Monday, the second of which provided enough runs for Suppan last night. A measure of the respect shown Pujols? When So Taguchi stole second and he was at the plate in the eighth, the count 2-2, Robinson called for two more balls -- an intentional walk.
Astacio, it seemed, might have retired Pujols in his first at-bat. The right-hander had struggled mightily in his previous three starts, allowing 16 earned runs in 10 2/3 innings. But he plowed through the first two hitters, and went to 3-2 on Pujols. With that, he threw a curveball.
"Obviously, we would have liked it to be a little more down, a little more out," Schneider said. Instead, it was too much over the plate. A bit of a mistake, and Pujols didn't miss it, sailing it over Soriano's head and off the facing in left, giving the Cardinals a 1-0 lead.
Meanwhile, Suppan went to work, using a season-high 121 pitches to get through his 7 2/3 innings, allowing only five singles, only twice putting two Nationals on base in the same inning.
"He wasn't tough," shortstop Felipe Lopez said. "We were hitting the ball right at people."
There were a few such instances, as when Preston Wilson tracked down Lopez's drive into the corner in right -- better than any catch he made in his 2 1/2 months as a National last year. That came in the eighth, when the Nationals -- who had scored in their final at-bat in five straight games, all wins -- mounted their best chance against Suppan.
With two outs, Ryan Zimmerman drew a walk, and Nick Johnson singled to right, ending Suppan's night. Reliever Adam Wainwright came on to face Austin Kearns, who had delivered the game-winning RBI three straight days.
Wainwright, though, hit Kearns with a 2-0 pitch, loading the bases, bringing up Schneider.
"He made a good pitch 1-0," Schneider said. "Probably the pitch to hit."
Schneider, though, didn't hit it, and when the count went to 1-2, he swung through a 75-mph curveball, leaving the bases loaded.
Still, in the ninth, one more chance, this one against closer Jason Isringhausen, who walked Ryan Church and Soriano with two down. Lopez, though, took two pitches and swung through strike three, stranding the runners -- and ending the streak.