Torre’s strategy: Keep Pujols at bay

By R.B. Fallstrom
Associated Press / October 10, 2009

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ST. LOUIS - Avoiding Albert Pujols seems to be working for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are one win away from a first-round playoff sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.

That strategy isn’t about to change heading into Game 3 of their National League Division Series tonight.

“To me, Albert is just out there in a class by himself,’’ Dodgers manager Joe Torre said yesterday. “It may cost me tomorrow, you know, a three-run homer instead of a two-run homer.

“But I’m still going to make somebody else beat me.’’

The Dodgers got a break in Game 2 when St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday dropped a two-out fly ball in the ninth inning, helping them rally for a 3-2 win. Holliday, batting cleanup behind Pujols, homered earlier in the game.

Pujols is the front-runner for a third NL MVP after batting .327 with a major league-leading 47 homers and 135 RBIs, along with a major-league high 44 intentional walks.

The Dodgers have held Pujols to a single in six at-bats, and zero at-bats with runners in scoring position. They’ve intentionally walked him three times.

Teams stopped issuing so many intentional walks the second half of the season after the Cardinals acquired Holliday July 24, giving Pujols protection in the order. Now the free passes are back with a vengeance.

“One of the reasons we were a lot better in the last half of the year is we have protection behind him,’’ Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “If Albert keeps getting on base, we’ll pick him up.’’

For Torre, there’s still no question the rest of the lineup is a lot less scary. Even if Holliday batted .353 with 55 RBIs in 63 games with St. Louis, and Ryan Ludwick had 97 RBIs.

Certainly the results have been favorable. Minus Pujols’s clutch bat the Cardinals have a deceptive .300 average, totaling just five runs the first two games.

Pujols’s teammates aren’t surprised the tactic is back. Third baseman Mark DeRosa said he’d walk Pujols with a runner on second in the first inning, too.

“Albert will go down as one of the greatest hitters of all time, and you’re not going to sleep at night if he beats you,’’ DeRosa said. “Joe Torre has won numerous championships and he’s not going to let the best player in the game impact the series when he doesn’t have to.’’

Though the Dodgers appear to be in command, Torre knows firsthand that the Cardinals are far from finished. He managed the last team to overcome a 2-0 division series deficit, and his 2001 New York Yankees even lost the first two games at home against Oakland.

“It doesn’t look good, and it doesn’t feel good for sure,’’ Torre said. “But just like on our side of it, we can’t go in and think that, ‘OK, we’ve got a two-nothing lead, it shouldn’t be a problem.’ ’’

The Cardinals were no doubt devastated on the flight home late Thursday night. They’re far from throwing in the towel, realizing how close they were to coming home up, 2-0, in the series.

They stranded 14 runners in the 5-3 Game 1 loss. Without Holliday’s error, the focus would have been on Adam Wainwright’s dominant pitching.

“We got lucky [Thursday],’’ Torre said.

The Cardinals need a three-game winning streak and have plenty of top-notch pitching left with 15-game winner Joel Pineiro opposing Vicente Padilla in Game 3. La Russa can choose between Kyle Lohse, veteran John Smoltz, or even Chris Carpenter on three days’ rest tomorrow.

First they need to get there. Smoltz said players need to ignore the inevitable knee-jerk reactions and instant assessments, and just get ready.

“I can only tell you from having gone through this a lot that this team certainly is tough enough to deal with a 2-0 deficit,’’ Smoltz said. “You don’t read anything, you don’t watch anything and you put the past behind you.

“You tend to start believing this is an impossible thing, but it’s been done a bunch of times and that’s where the power of the mind is.’’

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