ST. LOUIS – Heavy drags the bat in Albert Pujols's(notes) hand, a slab of lumber that can fill otherwise reasonable baseball men with panic. For when he swings it as he has in the last several days of this postseason, no player in the game can destroy hope like the first baseman of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Take Wednesday night, the third game of the National League Championship Series with the Milwaukee Brewers still believing the World Series dream, and here it was the first inning and their pitcher Yovani Gallardo(notes) threw a curve ball that was not a strike, that was not meant to be hit, and Pujols still crushed it over the center fielder's head. And as he did, as the crowd jumped and danced and Pujols stood on second base glaring, and the scoreboard said it was 2-0 and there was still nobody out, you could see the Brewers deflate.
He had broken them.
It is clear he now lives in the Brewers' heads. This much was obvious to the Cardinals' players who smiled at the thought and tried to talk about it politely rather than risk a violation of baseball etiquette. But they can tell. As one said, "Oh, he's in their head completely." Players can smell another man's desperation. "Look at how he's hitting," the St. Louis player said. "He's driving the ball the other way, he's not missing pitches. He's killing everything. He's in their heads, man."
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke almost admitted as much. He does not like the intentional walk. He does not like the idea of letting a man reach base for doing nothing. He thinks this is bad baseball. He thinks it can lead to more runners, to more hits, to bigger problems But after the Pujols double in the first and a single in the second, he decided he could no longer stand on principle, so the next two times Pujols came to the plate, he walked him.
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Roenicke said this was situational, that they would assess the times they would walk him. But both came with runners on base. Both brought Matt Holliday(notes), a one-time batting champion, to the plate with Lance Berkman(notes) and his 31 home runs this year behind him. Both were dangerous decisions that could have blown the Brewers out of the game. But it was better than pitching to Pujols and letting him hit another curve ball outside the strike zone for a home run or double.
"You know he's scary when he's hitting everything and we make good pitches and he's still hitting them," Roenicke said. "He's done a lot of damage against us."
Yes, he is in their heads.
Yes, he haunts them now.
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He has 14 hits in 31 at bats in the first two rounds of the postseason. He must see everything so well. His swing is smooth. The ball just flies. Berkman, who dresses next to him in the clubhouse, thinks any study of the first 11 years of Pujols' career would make him the greatest player in the history of the game. Who is better?, Berkman asks.
"It's tough to remember he will make an out," Berkman said.
Long after the game, Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire stood in a hallway outside the clubhouse and talked about his sweet feeling of being a power hitter who dominates the mind of the opposing team. It was a great sensation, he said. But it comes from selectivity. You can't try to do too much. You have to be patient and wait for the best pitches to hit. Pujols, he believes, tried to do too much this year. He was distracted by the uncertainty of his contract, which is up after these playoffs. But eventually he relaxed as the year went on and the home runs came back. He finished the season with 37 home runs and an OPS of .906. And this was a bad year.
"Think about it, do you want the best player in the game to beat you?" McGwire asked. "No."
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And when the Brewers made the decision to walk Pujols twice it was an admission they are more worried about him than anything else. Perhaps Milwaukee can still come back in this series. Perhaps Pujols goes cold, which is hard to imagine since he has only made four outs in the NLCS. More than likely he crushed the Brewers in this series with a home run Sunday in Game 2 and the first-inning double on Wednesday. It's hard to imagine Milwaukee pulling this out. Not the way Pujols is hitting.
"When you know you have gotten in a groove 99 percent of the time you're going to see a ball and be able to center it." McGwire said.
Then the coach, once the most intimidating hitter in baseball, chuckled.
"That's why they call him The Machine," he said.
The Machine is running now, chewing through the Brewers pitching staff, crawling in the minds of the only team that can keep him from his third World Series. There seems no stopping him now.
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