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Baseball Notes

This Card is going wild

Teams having trouble dealing with Pujols

By Nick Cafardo
July 5, 2009
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Early Friday afternoon, Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker was sitting in his office at the Great American Ball Park talking on the telephone to this reporter about Albert Pujols, whom his team was facing that night.

Is there a way to pitch him?

“I’m not telling you that,’’ said Baker. “Albert reads the papers. The best way to at least help you deal with him is that you’d better make sure there’s nobody on base when he comes up.’’

Truer words were never spoken. Later that night, Pujols came up with the bases loaded in the eighth inning with the Reds leading, 3-0. Pujols hit a go-ahead grand slam - the fourth he’s hit this season - and the Cardinals went on to win, 7-4.

Pujols has had eight phenomenal seasons, but his ninth might be the best. Pujols, who turned 29 in January, became the third-youngest player (after Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr.) to hit 350 home runs. He was hitting .336 with 31 homers and 82 RBIs through 81 games with a .460 on-base percentage and a 1.208 OPS. And is there any doubt he’s baseball’s best player at the midway point of 2009?

Has Pujols become even greater than before?

“Absolutely, he has,’’ said Baker. “As you get older - and we’re not talking about real old but a guy who’s in his prime - he’s learned how to hit. Not that he didn’t know before, but now he’s confident in himself every time he gets up there. He knows what pitchers are going to try to do with him. He’s ahead of them.’’

Tony La Russa, speaking by telephone from the visitors’ clubhouse in Cincinnati yesterday morning, agrees that “because he’s smarter and has more experience and because he works so hard on his hitting, on his defense, sure he’s better, and he’s going to keep getting better.’’

Baker watched teams intentionally walk Barry Bonds even when the bases were empty, and didn’t care for it.

“You want to protect the integrity of the game, so you don’t want to put [Pujols] on every time he comes up,’’ said Baker. “I think it was Kansas City that said we’re going to pitch to him and challenge him. Well, how did that work out? Yet you don’t want to throw up your hands and give up on him, either.’’

La Russa believes pitchers should go after any hitter. “What kind of a message are you sending to your pitcher if you’re telling him, don’t go after this guy, pitch around him?’’ he said. “I think that becomes counterproductive. Go back to the way I handled Bonds, and what we did was we had our guys challenge him. That’s the way I think the game should be played. Felipe Alou once had a great line when he said, ‘We raised competitors, not cowards.’ ’’

Milwaukee’s Ken Macha manages one of the few teams that has handled Pujols well this season (.235), but claims there’s no secret other than, “Pitch him tough and don’t let him hurt you. In Oakland when we faced Bonds, the way I approached it was he’s capable of hitting a home run every time he steps up. If I have to walk him to avoid that situation, I will.’’

Pujols has picked up in July where he left off in June, a month in which he hit 14 homers, which tied his single-month high of April 2006. He drove in 35 runs, two more than he did in May 2006, yet Pujols has insisted he’s not in the same “zone’’ he was in ’06.

Pujols always has been more productive in the first half of seasons. In 2003, he hit 27 homers and knocked in 86 runs while hitting .368 over the first 81 games. In 2006, the season he raves about, he hit 29 homers and knocked in 76 runs with a .316 average over the first half.

“In ’06, I was pretty locked in those first two months,’’ Pujols said last week. “I don’t think I’ve had the same consistency I had in ’06. Every swing I was taking I was hitting the ball hard.’’

He feasted on interleague play, hitting .409 with nine homers and 19 RBIs with a .567 on-base percentage in 44 at-bats. Nine of his 16 walks were intentional.

Asked whether he saw similarities between Pujols and Bonds, Macha said, “The numbers he’s putting up are amazing. I think one of the things that’s remarkable to me is he hasn’t had a lot of protection in that lineup. So, basically you’re looking at a guy who’s carried that team.’’

Two people who watch Pujols regularly brought up steroids, but both leaned toward the fact they were watching a clean player.

“You hope beyond hope that what you’re watching is the real thing, because he’s phenomenal,’’ said an American League talent evaluator. An NL scout said, “Don’t forget, he’s putting up those numbers in the [steroid] testing era. For me, that makes it pretty special.’’

GM with a healthy outlook

A few questions for Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi:

At midseason, are you still surprised your team has been able to hang in?

JR: “Out of spring training, if you told me this would be our record I’d be shocked, considering what was happening with our pitching. We lost four-fifths of our rotation, so the one thing I said is that we needed our young pitchers to step up, and for the most part they have. We’ve been able to get these kids a lot of experience. And now we’ve got Shaun Marcum coming back in August and Casey Janssen after the All-Star break.’’

Will you be buyers or sellers at the trading deadline?

JR: “I think we’re going to have a better idea about that once we get through this stretch of games before the break. We’ve got the Yankees, Tampa Bay, and Baltimore, and if we go 0-10, we’ll go one way. If we go 8-2, we’ll have to think about adding some pieces.’’

What would you add, and would you have financial restrictions?

JR: “Well, we brought up David Dellucci, so we hope that gives us a spark. But we’d like to add another bat and we’re always looking to add a pitcher, but it would have to be someone who fits into our long-term plans, and I’m not sure there’s anyone quite like that out there. I think we always have to be concerned about finances, but if we wanted to make a deal and take on some money we’d have to make a case for it to our ownership.’’

Biggest surprise?

JR: “I think what Marco Scutaro has given us as our shortstop has been phenomenal, but we’ve also gotten a heck of a year out of Scott Rolen, Aaron Hill has been tremendous for us. Brian Tallett, for a guy who stepped in for us like he did, has had a nice season, and our young guys like Ricky Romero and Scott Richmond have done a nice job.’’

At the halfway pole, these thoroughbreds are leading the field

The top first-half performers by position (statistics through Friday night):

1B: Albert Pujols, Cardinals - Obvious. Honorable mention: Miguel Cabrera (.325, 16 home runs, 47 RBIs), Kevin Youkilis (.381 with runners in scoring position), Justin Morneau (.311, 19 HRs, 65 RBIs).

2B: Chase Utley, Phillies - Has rebounded from hip surgery with 17 homers, 54 RBIs, a .303 batting average, and a .980 OPS. Honorable mention: Aaron Hill, Ian Kinsler, Robinson Cano, and Dustin Pedroia.

SS: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins - His numbers continue to be off the charts (.344, 13 HRs, 58 RBIs, .972 OPS). Prone to defensive lapses, but you live with it. Honorable mention: Derek Jeter (.310, 9 HRs, 32 RBIs) can still play, and Jason Bartlett (.357, 7 HRs, 36 RBIs) is a linchpin for the Rays.

3B Evan Longoria, Rays - Despite a recent dip associated with a hamstring injury, he’s provided average (.294), power (16 homers), and production (63 RBIs). Honorable mention: David Wright has had a superb year (.333). The Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman and the Giants’ Pablo Sandoval get some credit.

C: Joe Mauer, Twins - Missing most of April, he’s still the best all around, and hanging around .400 at this point in the season (.390) is impressive. Honorable mention: Victor Martinez catches only half the time, but he’s had a strong offensive performance (.308, 14 HRs, 57 RBIs) on a lousy Indians team.

LF: Jason Bay, Red Sox - While his average has dipped, Bay drives in runs (70) and has had big late-game hits. Honorable mention: Carl Crawford, Raul Ibanez, and Ryan Braun. And Juan Pierre has done a great job replacing Manny Ramirez.

CF: Carlos Beltran, Mets - On the disabled list, but he is hitting .336 with eight homers, 40 RBIs, and 11 steals, and plays great defense. Honorable mention: Torii Hunter (.300, 17 HRs, 59 RBIs), who also has been spectacular in the field.

RF: Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners - A .367 average and 17 steals take the prize for Suzuki, who has continued to play great defense. Honorable mention: Brad Hawpe (Rockies) and Justin Upton (Diamondbacks) have had breakout seasons.

DH: Adam Lind, Blue Jays - Has really come into his own (.310, 16 HRs, 53 RBIs) and become the top DH in a weak group. Honorable mention: Jason Kubel.

Starting pitchers (5): Zack Greinke (Royals), Dan Haren (Diamondbacks), Tim Lincecum (Giants), Roy Halladay (Blue Jays), and Felix Hernandez (Mariners). Honorable mention: Edwin Jackson, Matt Cain, Josh Johnson, and Tim Wakefield.

Reliever: Jonathan Papelbon. Honorable mention: Huston Street, Trevor Hoffman, Heath Bell, and Brian Fuentes.

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. Should we go back to the drawing board on that maple bat study?; 2. I love that Jack Wilson hates the perpetual rebuilding in Pittsburgh; 3. Glad old buddy Larry Rosoff got out of Petco Park in time. “My buddy Tony and I decided to move to seats in right field after the sixth inning to get some sun,’’ Rosoff said. “From there we saw the swarm of bees and the wind was blowing them in our direction. Being highly allergic to bee stings I decided discretion was the better part of valor and we left the ballpark.’’; 4. Cuban defector Jose Iglesias is an Ozzie Smith-like shortstop. Quite a catch for the Sox if they land him; 5. Does anyone feel bad for Juan Pierre?

Updates on nine
1. Gaby Sanchez, 1B, Marlins - The Red Sox inquired about the big righthanded hitter, who has spent the season at Triple A (New Orleans) after it was thought he’d start for the Marlins out of spring training. With Hanley Ramirez red-hot and a top pitching staff, Florida, which is serious about staying in the National League East race, is looking for bullpen pieces, but the Sox don’t seem to be in that mode at the moment.

2. Yunel Escobar, SS, Braves - Bobby Cox hates mental errors and disrespecting the game. And while Escobar has great skills, it probably would break Cox’s heart if Escobar were moved. Escobar has riled Cox a few times this season, including when he looked up at the press box and gestured to the official scorer who charged him with two errors. Cox has not been impressed with the toughness of Escobar, who has missed games with questionable injuries.

3. Mike Lowell, 3B, Red Sox - According to team sources, the Sox aren’t going to make a deal for a hitter until they see how Lowell holds up over the final two weeks of July. If they were to make a deal they’d have to dump Mark Kotsay, and they don’t want to do that. There’s no shortage of options, including Nick Johnson, Chad Tracy, Garrett Atkins, and Victor Martinez. Don’t expect anything for the next three weeks.

4. Victor Martinez, C, Indians - The Indians resist talking trade about their best player, but where will they draw the line? The Red Sox have been interested since April - now the Giants and possibly the Angels are calling - and they have the chips to deal.

5. Carlos Zambrano, RHP, Cubs - It was interesting to hear that Zambrano would waive his no-trade clause to pitch for the Red Sox or White Sox. This was after a Chicago Tribune poll in which 57 percent of more than 13,000 responders indicated they were sick of his act. Zambrano then told Tribune White Sox writer Paul Sullivan, “Fine, trade me to Boston.’’ He also said he wouldn’t mind the Dodgers. For the record, the Red Sox are not considering Zambrano.

6. Freddy Sanchez, 2B, Pirates - The Pirates will trade anyone, and you’d have to be interested in the former Sox farmhand and former National League batting champion, who was hitting .316 entering last night’s game. Sanchez, 31, can play second or third.

7. Magglio Ordonez, OF, Tigers - Still a lot of pressure on him to get his bat in gear. Since his four-game benching, Ordonez has ended his 40-game homer drought, but in his next five games he went 2 for 20 with two singles. If Ordonez doesn’t snap out of his slump by the All-Star break, the Tigers have a decision to make. Ordonez has an $18 million option for next season that will kick in based on plate appearances. After eating Gary Sheffield’s deal and Dontrelle Willis’s failure, it doesn’t appear likely.

8. Jose Guillen, OF, Royals - The Royals have tried to deal the 33-year-old and his righthanded bat, which would be attractive in a few places. Given the Dayton Moore-Braves relationship, there’s always the possibility that some kind of swap of outfielders (Jeff Francoeur is a Moore favorite) could be in the wings.

9. Lastings Milledge, OF, Pirates - The Nationals are certainly trying to erase their past. They traded Milledge to Pittsburgh last Tuesday and demoted Elijah Dukes to Triple A Syracuse. These are two guys who didn’t cut it in Washington, which was thrilled to ship Milledge to Pittsburgh.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck Files: “What do Carlos Beltran, Alex Cora, Carlos Delgado, Oliver Perez, J.J. Putz, and Jose Reyes have in common? All Mets, all 2009 DL inhabitants, and all on WBC rosters.’’ Also, “Through Thursday, the Red Sox have been 29-13 when Dice-K is on the DL this season.’’ . . . A belated happy birthday to Red Sox senior adviser Jeremy Kapstein. Happy birthday, Rick Lancellotti.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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