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Jeff Passan
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Scott Rolen & Albert Pujols

DETROIT – Scott Rolen said he found the fight in himself again Saturday night, which was pretty funny. All Rolen does is fight. He is stubborn and outspoken and logical, and while all of those things help make him a brilliant player, they also damn him to a career of butting heads with authority figures.

Over the past month, the tension between the All-Star third baseman and his manager, the St. Louis Cardinals’ svengali, Tony La Russa, has gotten test-line tight. Rolen’s left shoulder hurt. La Russa accused him of hiding the injury’s severity and benched Rolen, who wanted to call La Russa a duplicitous, favor-playing narcissist but thought better of career death by suicide.

Instead, Rolen listened to La Russa insinuate, among other things, that he couldn’t hit an inside fastball, and gnawed his tongue raw.

How about Game 1 of the World Series, then, and Rolen’s first at-bat, when Detroit Tigers starter Justin Verlander, one of about half a dozen in Major League Baseball whose fastball hits 100 mph, challenged him with one.

“Fastball in and up a little bit,” Rolen said. “That I can’t get to.”

Oh, the sarcasm dripped like sap from a sugar maple. Rolen hammered the offering into the left-field stands at Comerica Park, a deaden-the-crowd moment in a 7-2 Cardinals victory full of them.

Though one night cannot erase the last week, which Rolen called “mentally challenging,” or the 2004 World Series, in which Rolen went 0 for 15, it did plenty to expunge them. Vindication is a sweet drink. Revenge – and Rolen never used that word, though with La Russa introducing him to the wheels of a bus, it might not be an exaggeration – is Johnnie Walker Blue.

Somehow, the Cardinals have managed to quiet the tiff, a task the New York Yankees could not manage in their third baseman-vs.-manager beef. Just because Alex Rodriguez never called out Joe Torre, like Rolen did La Russa, does not mean the tension wasn’t there; hitting Rodriguez eighth in the Yankees’ last game of the season was a greater shaming than anything Torre could have said. Through his maneuvering, La Russa – a great mind as well, which might explain why he and Rolen butt heads – has taken what should be a big deal and neutralized it.

Even if it did surprise the Tigers, his Cardinals teammates and, most of all, La Russa, Rolen’s breakout was brewing. Six for 32 in the postseason entering the World Series, Rolen did score the winning run in the National League Championship Series, crossing the plate on Yadier Molina’s home run. And he’s certain to end up a trivia answer in many a Queens bar: Who hit the surefire home run that Endy Chavez stole over the wall in Game 7?

So skeptical was he after Chavez’s incredible catch, Rolen had a question of his own when he swung Saturday.

“The ball’s in the air, and I’m trying to figure out, how’s this one going to screw up?” Rolen said. “What’s going to happen here? Is it going to hit a tree?”

Only a Sequoia would have stopped Rolen’s home run. He sprinted around the bases and entered the dugout having tied the game at 1. In the next inning, cognizant of a heating-up Jim Edmonds and Rolen hitting in the fourth and fifth holes, Tigers manager Jim Leyland pitched to Albert Pujols, who walloped a two-run home run that staked rookie starter Anthony Reyes to all the runs he needed.

Leyland did not apologize. He had seen Rolen’s swing: quick to pull in his wrists, even on the hip rotation and long on his arm extension, nary a sign of a bum shoulder.

“Everybody’s been ragging on him and complaining about his left shoulder, blah, blah, blah,” said Jason Isringhausen, the Cardinals’ injured closer. “The last couple games he’s been swinging the bat a lot better. We really need him to step up. Everybody knows that.”

With Rolen hitting, the Cardinals have viable protection for Pujols in case Leyland decides to start playing the intentional-walk game, something they missed in 2004.

Sure, it lacked the interpersonal drama of this year’s playoffs, but Rolen ran into heavy criticism two years ago, too. In the division series, he went 0 for 12. His game-winning home run off Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the NLCS seemed to fortify Rolen until he ran into the Boston Red Sox and couldn’t muster anything.

“Being able to have played in the World Series before and failed miserably personally and as a team, you make an adjustment,” Rolen said, “see what’s going on, try to see how you can be better and the team can be better.”

Tough to be in a better situation than the Cardinals. They’ve stolen home-field advantage from the Tigers and taken advantage of Detroit’s week layoff. They head into Game 2 on Sunday with one of their hottest pitchers, Jeff Weaver, taking on Detroit’s impenetrable Kenny Rogers. They’ve got Pujols and Edmonds going, their bullpen rested after Reyes’ eight innings and Rolen being Rolen – in a good way.

Which means joking and self-deprecating and comparing one play to a gruesome scene in a war movie. The situation: Rolen, on second after a double, heads toward third base on a ground ball as Brandon Inge tries to throw out Edmonds at home. The throw, 3 feet wide of catcher Pudge Rodriguez, skips to the backstop, and Rolen keeps running – right into Inge, in fact, with the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Rolen taking the worse end of the collision. Third-base umpire Mike Winters awards him the run, though not before a bare-headed Rolen stands up and rumbles home.

Rolen’s play-by-play: “I got up and tried to score, slid into a dead play at the plate and ran back and got my helmet like the guy in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ looking for his arm.”

Even he laughed at that one. Some levity helped lighten a line of questioning that would inevitably turn toward Rolen and La Russa’s relationship. Rolen had talked about “a new series, a new environment, a new everything,” and, perhaps, that meant him extending an olive branch to his manager. They hadn’t been on speaking terms.

“Not gonna talk about that,” Rolen said.

He shook his head and walked away. The fight was still there, all right, raging and burning and smoldering. For once, Scott Rolen chose to bury it, and that was Saturday’s biggest surprise of all.