KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Try to dissect Albert Pujols' freakish ability to heal from injuries like a superhero, and the issue turns into baseball's version of intelligent design, a God-vs.-Science debate that even Pujols can't quite figure out.
First, he defers to the man upstairs. When challenged to put any of his accomplishments into context – say, returning from a calf injury a couple weeks ahead of schedule, then going 4 for 4 in his first game back Thursday and adding a monster home run Sunday in the St. Louis Cardinals' 9-6 victory – Pujols falls back on faith.
"I give all the credit to God because he puts me on the field," he said. "God is the only one who knows how quickly I heal."
Except when Pujols is reminded of how hard he works. Now, there are some players for whom recovering from an injury is a task so Sisyphean, they end up getting crushed beneath the boulder. See: Pavano, Carl; Johnson, Nick; Sweeney, Mike; and other such denizens of the disabled list.
In his eight-year career, Pujols has spent two stints on the DL, and the first was much like the recent: An injury expected to sideline him for up to six weeks took less than three to heal. And as much as he defers to otherworldly beings, Pujols also doesn't want to shortchange himself.
"It's not amazing," he said. "I work hard for it. Why should I be surprised about it?"
Hey, Pujols is batting .356, getting on base at a .483 clip and swatting balls to every part of the field, so let the man have his cake and eat it. What Pujols has done, and continues to do, is play at a level stratospheric among his peers, unique in the purest sense of the word, joyous to partake in.
"He is an amazing player," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "You're seeing it. Comes off the disabled list and gets four hits. That's amazing. If you watch him on a daily basis, he does something good every day. He does some amazing things often.
"I never take him for granted. I don't take greatness like that for granted. I enjoy it too much."
Well, that and the production. The Cardinals worried that without Pujols, their surprising start would go for naught. Instead, at 47-36, they own the National League's second-best record, behind Central Division rival Chicago, are one of only five teams with winning marks at home and on the road, and now get energized by the league's most fearsome hitter.
All of which makes June 11 laughable in hindsight. The Cardinals' clubhouse transformed into a wake that night, the mood somber, everyone recounting stories about the deceased: St. Louis' season. Pujols pulled up lame running to first base, and panic set in. He left the stadium on crutches. A return before the All-Star break was optimistic.
Along the way, something happened. Pujols started to say he would be back soon. No one knew how or why. The Cardinals just trusted him, like recovering from injury was some sort of a skill Pujols had mastered.
"You ever see 'Rudy'?" Cardinals trainer Barry Weinberg asked. "Rudy asks why he can't get into Notre Dame. Remember what the priest told him? There are two facts in life. One, there's a God. Two, I'm not him."
In other words, Weinberg hasn't the faintest clue. Nobody understands how Pujols continues to play at such an elite level with a high-grade tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, which, at some point or another, will require Tommy John surgery. They can't fathom how he shook off his last disabling injury, one to the rib cage, an integral part of a hitter's swing, as though it were a hangnail.
"I don't think there's some magic button or special potion he's taking," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "Albert loves to play the game of baseball. That's where he gets his joy from. Regardless of whether we're 15 (games) up or 15 down, in first place or last place, he just wants to play baseball."
Such has been evident over recent days, when Pujols would retire to his sanctum, the batting cage, and work through the routine that has helped him hone his swing in the fashion Tiger Woods does his. Pujols is, as teammate Jason Isringhausen notes, "a maniac" with his workouts, and he means that in the most complimentary way.
So to see Pujols slash a double down the line in the first inning Sunday astounded no one, and to see Kansas City issue him his 19th intentional walk of the season in the third inning was no shock.
"I think anybody will take the way I'm swinging now," Pujols said.
True enough, which is why the only flabbergasting moment of the afternoon came when Royals pitcher Joel Peralta actually believed he could throw a 3-2 fastball by Pujols in the sixth inning.
Pujols turned on the 93-mph pitch and sent it soaring into a stiff wind, and it kept going, long over the left-field fence. Nothing in this world was going to stop it, and nothing – neither God nor science – could explain how he did it, either.