During the first inning of Wednesday night’s game, Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols again reminded Redbirds fans, as well as a national television audience via ESPN2, that he remains an unfinished product.
Despite all the wondrous stats, the game-winning hits, the solid defense and the clutch home runs, the simple and glaring fact is that Albert is a reckless baserunner. Yes, he is eleven for eleven in stolen bases this season. Yet at times, Pujols looks more like a little leaguer than an MVP on the basepaths.
First, Pujols is not the only player whose head is often craned sideways, looking at the outfielders instead of his coach, as he rounds second base. But, a superstar can and should know better. There is no doubt all that gazing slows any runner’s progress on the bases.
Second, Pujols regularly and blatently ignores Jose Oquendo, the long-time and very capable Cardinals third base coach. This over-aggressiveness is compounded by the fact that Albert often makes these bad decisions. When these ill-advised gambles actually work once in a while, all that seemingly does is give him more confidence to continue.
Perhaps it would be justifiable or at least explainable if the Cardinals’ coach at third was someone like the former Cubs and Red Sox infamous third base coach “Waive ‘em Home” Wendell Kim. But, Oquendo is generally recognized as one of the best in the business at his job. Yet, with Pujols on the bases, he may as well be a cardboard cut-out.
Let me be clear. Nobody is questioning Pujols’ hustle or desire – but his fundamentals and his judgment on the bases is another matter entirely.
Case in point Wednesday night: Pujols singled through the hole with two outs in the first. With the cleanup hitter, Jim Edmonds at the plate, Pujols took a good idea and went too far. Taking off for second, Pujols drew a wild throw by catcher Robert Fick that sailed into centerfield. Rounding third, despite Oquendo's clear stop sign, Albert didn’t slow down and tried to come home, where he was easily thrown out by centerfielder Dave Roberts. Fick had plenty of time to completely block Pujols off the plate. Albert never sniffed the dish as he made an attempt to slide around Fick to the inside in a manner that could easily have led to a collision and injury. God help the Cardinals if Pujols was to go down, especially on a bonehead play like that.
Perhaps Pujols is pressing because four Cardinals regulars are out. That is understandable, but totally unnecessary. Let’s keep this in context. It was the first inning of a July game against a team that has lost eight games in a row.
Pujols should simply continue to just be Pujols. That is more than good enough both for him and the Cardinals.
But, pressing or not, some adjustments are needed. The fact is that these problems on the basepaths have been evident for a long time. This blind spot remains one of the consistent and rare, and therefore glaring weaknesses in Albert’s game.
The good news is that these problems can be easily addressed. It won’t require hours of film study or countless reps in the weight room or any of that. All that is needed is a willingness to learn.
All we hear about is Pujols’ greatness and that praise is richly deserved. But, it is time to test that greatness behind closed doors. Is Albert willing to get better?
Tony La Russa needs to sit down with Pujols and find out if this great player is willing to learn from his mistakes – to become even greater, because to-date it is clear that Pujols has been unable or unwilling to make the necessary corrections himself.
It’s Tony’s job to address this problem. Here’s hoping he does.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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