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LOS ANGELES – Fifteen pitches into his night, on a sinker that had come in unreasonably high and inside, Albert Pujols(notes) buried the baseball into the second row of the bleachers, over the lowest fence in left field, to the shortest distance from home plate to home run at Dodger Stadium.
Once convinced of the outcome, he lowered his head and plunged into his heavy-legged trot, returned and dabbed at the plate, pointed to the sky and clapped his gloved hands.
Two weeks into the season, he'd hit his second home run, bagged his seventh RBI, bumped up his batting average to .235.
When he arrived in the dugout, he showed teammate Lance Berkman(notes) the swing that did it at the end of a nine-pitch at-bat against Hiroki Kuroda(notes), pantomiming the bat skipping over the strike zone, his fists close to his chest, his eyes following the ball's flight.
"Good grief, man," Berkman half-shouted. "That was a great swing, an unbelievable pitch to hit out."
Up and in, 92 mph, almost nobody puts that pitch – "A Hall of Fame pitch," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called it – into fair territory. And almost nobody minimizes the top spin so that it carries that far.
It's the split-second genius of Pujols, borne of a single-minded journey, a devotion to the process, and a grudging willingness to live with the result. Not always happily, of course. He suffers fools and distractions with the same low-browed, dark-eyed stare, and having begun his contract year in what counts for him as a slump, there'd be plenty of both.
Spring training opened without a contract extension for Pujols, by consensus the best hitter in baseball, who perhaps had outgrown the middle-market Cardinals. And the season opened with Pujols 100 points below his career batting average, delivering four hits in 19 plate appearances with runners in scoring position and having acquired an unusual affinity for double-play grounders.
All temporary inconveniences, to be sure, but it is news when Albert Pujols does not hit – for a day, for a series, for two weeks. This is the product of 10 years of split-second genius, piled end to end, forming the image of Pujols – knees bent, quads engaged, hands at the shoulder, head slightly tilted and stock still. There is no beating Pujols, not for very long anyway, and on a night he otherwise grounded to shortstop twice, grounded to the pitcher once, popped to right-center field and left a runner at third base with less than two out, a moment arrives that for its brilliance could only be Pujols'.
"It's nature," Berkman said. "Hitting is as much an athletic skill as speed and arm strength. You can't teach somebody to hit. You can't make a great hitter."
As of lunch time Thursday in Pasadena, where Pujols awoke after a late flight from Phoenix the night before and dined with long-time agent Dan Lozano, 73 regular position players possessed a lower batting average than he did.
Dozens had driven in fewer runs, scored fewer runs, batted worse with men on base.
Not many, however, carried it all so ferociously. He is obsessed by routine. By mid-afternoon, with the clubhouse television locked on a mid-game no-hit attempt by Washington's Jordan Zimmermann(notes), Pujols is sitting on a folding chair away from everyone. He's pulled the chair to a red trunk, placed a laptop computer atop the trunk, and with his left hand is toggling through recent at-bats.
"It's all about the process," La Russa said. "He's relentless. He's never going to stop."
Around Pujols, the Cardinals' offense is coming to life, as is their season. They've scored 46 runs in their last five games and won four. Matt Holliday(notes) has returned faster from an appendectomy than he would a sprained ankle. Berkman, his knee sturdy again, has four home runs and 11 RBIs, protecting Pujols and Holliday in the lineup. Colby Rasmus(notes) is batting .377 and has scored 12 runs.
[Power rankings: Cards take a tumble]
An attack that too often last season rose and fell with Pujols and Holliday for the moment looks capable and deep.
While his teammates explain to reporters their parts in a 9-5 win over the Dodgers, Pujols leaves the clubhouse carrying a bag of food and drink, his expression grim. This is the time for fools and distractions.
He stops in a dimly lit hallway, hauled down from behind.
"Everybody was panicking," he said, meaning everybody but the men in the clubhouse he left behind. "You guys were panicking."
He musters a smile. He'd had a few good at-bats. And he'd taken that 3-and-2 pitch from Kuroda, that bastard pitch, and punished it. His recognition had been true, his hands had been fast, his swing path reliable.
"It works," he said, "when you have that trust and you believe."
The guys at the top of the order – Ryan Theriot(notes) and Rasmus – reached base. The men behind them – Pujols, Holliday and Berkman – had six hits between them. The bottom of the lineup had produced three more runs.
And Pujols had homered. More important, it had felt exactly right.
"That's a good sign," he says. "Obviously, that's what you want to do. You fight and you battle every day, but you can't care about the result at the end of the game, but to win."
He's no longer grim. In fact, his smile says it's coming. And it's coming soon.
"I feel good," he says.
It's what one swing will do, along with a lifetime of split seconds.