Pujols is the most dangerous hitter in the Major Leagues today. Overall, he is simply the best hitter in the game. You can bring up the names of all the other worthies among his peers, and they can all be lauded, and applauded, and given multi-year deals for mega-millions. But Pujols is at the top of the list.
And that was where he was on Saturday night, in Game 1 of the 2006 World Series. His St. Louis Cardinals had a 2-1 lead on the favored Detroit Tigers in the third inning. There was a runner on second, Chris Duncan, who had just doubled in a run. There were two outs. Pujols was up.
He must be walked here. There are no other alternatives. He has earned the walk, with six years of superstar run production. He might have been the National League Most Valuable Player Award every year since 2001, if it had not been for the prodigious numbers put up by Barry Bonds. And those numbers are, of course, a completely different story.
Pujols was not walked. On the first pitch Justin Verlander threw to Pujols, he hit the two-run home run that changed the character of this contest and sent the Cardinals on their way to a 7-2 victory. Jim Edmonds, batting next, struck out.
"I could go into a lot of detail about that, but I'll just leave it at this," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "The manager's decision is either to pitch to him or to walk him, and I pitched to him, and obviously he burned us. I'm not going to get into a lot of explanation about what the thinking was. But I take the bullet there, and if somebody gives criticism, you accept it, because it's ultimately my decision.
"I'll leave it at that, I'll take the heat for that. That's just the way we went about it. Obviously, that wasn't the way it was supposed to be, but that's fine."
When Leyland says "that wasn't the way it was supposed to be," that might tell you that he wanted Verlander to pitch around Pujols, which is one way of dealing with him. It is not just the safest way.
Look, Leyland has done a magnificent job managing the Tigers, in all aspects, and nothing that happens now will detract from that. But the thing to do here was not to pitch around Pujols or to pitch to him at all. The thing to do was to hold up four fingers and give him the intentional walk.
No muss, no fuss, no chances taken, four straight balls. This is the respect that must be accorded to Pujols now. In the time-honored tradition of the game, let one of the other Cardinals prove that he can beat you. Edmonds has been a formidable player, an important player, a winning player. But he has never been what Pujols is now. Take your chances with him. Award first base to Pujols without question or hesitation.
Postseason home run leaders
|Albert Pujols tied teammate Jim Edmonds and Atlanta's Chipper Jones for ninth all-time in postseason home runs with his two-run shot in Game 1 of the World Series.|
|* Through games of 10/22/06|
Admittedly, a lot of other things went right for the Cardinals on Saturday night. Mainly, there was Anthony Reyes, supposedly the weak link in their postseason rotation, throwing a brilliant game at the favored Tigers. If the Cardinals could win this game, the one that looked like their worst matchup on the mound, then maybe they are in position to surprise a lot of people.
Maybe the Cardinals are not as heavily overmatched as some have suggested. In that case, the Tigers need to take additional precautions, especially with Pujols.
The home run pitch to Pujols was over the outside part of the plate, and Pujols drove it out to right.
"It wasn't a bad pitch -- to most people," Verlander said.
Verlander told reporters that he was not told to pitch around Pujols and that this was simply a matter of a great hitter getting a good pitch.
"I just go out there and just try don't take my aggression away," Pujols said. "If they decide to pitch around me, I know that those guys [behind me] can drive it in. I just go out there and just try to see the ball and put a good swing, and that's what I did.
"It's so tough, when you have a guy throwing 95, 99 miles an hour, to think too much when you're at the plate."
Pujols' home run provided the winning margin in Game 1 of the 2006 World Series. He has won plenty of games in this way before and he will win plenty of games later. There will be times when getting beat by Pujols will be unavoidable. But this was one time when getting beat by Pujols did not have to be inevitable.