Pujols: Play Him or Rest Him?

Pujols shows Tony La Russa where it hurt

Arguably, the most emotionally-charged debate currently being waged across the Cardinal Nation is over the health status of Albert Pujols. When should the Cardinals put him back in the line-up?&nbsp&nbsp

Because Albert Pujols' recovery from a strained oblique is ahead of the original four-to-six weeks estimate, those from the manager to the closer to the head clubhouse attendant are being grilled by anyone and everyone as to when the superstar first baseman can exit the disabled list and re-enter play.

Yet, the cautious quickly flash back to last June, when Scott Rolen attempted to aggressively return from his first shoulder surgery. Unfortunately, it was not the Rolen anyone wanted to see. The third baseman was in pain, was ineffective and soon had to ditch the entire campaign for a second surgical procedure.

While any parallels may be fair or unfair, just the idea of Albert Pujols missing the remainder of 2006 is enough to ruin any Cardinals fan's disposition.

What about the team right now? How are they handling themselves? The answer is that they seem to be doing just fine.

The Cardinals' record is a season-high 16 games over .500 and their lead in the National League Central Division is five games, which just happens to equal their largest margin in the standings all season long.

The Cardinals have crafted a winning record since Pujols went on the shelf and are currently on a 6-1 run. Individually, other core players like Rolen and Juan Encarnacion have stepped up their games in the interim. Is it a bad thing for the players to remind themselves they can win without Albert?

So, why rush Pujols back?

Well, the Cardinals are heading straight into macho-man territory – interleague play. And, these aren't a rehash of the ultra-exciting matches against the Kansas City Royals.

In their next two series, the Redbirds march onto the home turf of the defending World Champion Chicago White Sox and the team with the best record in Major League Baseball, the Detroit Tigers.

These games are no doubt important to Tony La Russa. After all, despite the fact that White Sox principal owner Jerry Reinsdorf remains a close friend, to this day La Russa reminds Reinsdorf who fired him in Chi-town as manager of the Sox 20 years ago. La Russa was the first major league manager of animated Chicago skipper Ozzie Guillen and is highly-respected by the younger man.

Over the coming weekend, it may be even more intense as one of La Russa's closest friends in the game and former Cardinals scout Jim Leyland manages the surprise of the 2006 season, the Tigers. Suppose there will be any testosterone-driven competition there?

And, these two opponents have some top-quality arms. Combining the 2006 win-loss records of the six starters the Cardinals will face this week adds up to 46 wins and just 23 losses. If they made up a single team, that .667 winning clip would be the best in all of Major League Baseball. So, it won't be a picnic facing the likes of Javier Vazquez, Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Justin Verlander, Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman.

Given that, should the Cardinals pull out all the stops to win, including bringing back Pujols to play in the field or perhaps at least function as designated hitter?

I am not here to analyze the medical reports and assess the risk of further injury to Pujols. But, I do strongly prefer that the Cardinals err on the side of cautiousness, even though it means not putting their best nine players on the field each day.

Yet, there has to be a major part of La Russa that would like to not only win both series, but also sweep all six games. And, there are many who believe that humbling these opponents, the best that Major League Baseball has to offer, will provide huge psychological benefits come playoff time.

While this argument is often cited by fans and is being pushed as a big reason to elevate the importance of this coming week, the facts don't bear the theory out.

In the last three years that the Cardinals exited the playoffs after having faced that same team during the regular season, they were unable to translate their regular season dominance into playoff success.

 

Regular Season

 

Post-Season

2005

Cards 11

Astros 5

 

Cards 2

Astros 4

2004

Cards 0

Red Sox 0

 

Cards 0

Red Sox 4

2003

NA

 

 

 

 

2002

Cards 4

Giants 2

 

Cards 1

Giants 4

2001

Cards 4

D'backs 2

 

Cards 2

D'backs 3

In fact, while I am not suggesting losses this week should be assumed, consider this. Since 2001, the only two times the Cardinals faced a team in the playoffs against which they had a regular-season deficit, they came back and won both post-season series.

 

Regular Season

 

Post-Season

2005

Cards 3

Padres 4

 

Cards 3

Padres 0

2004

Cards 8

Astros 10

 

Cards 4

Astros 3

In two other instances during this time, the Cards won both the regular season and the later playoff series.

 

Regular Season

 

Post-Season

2004

Cards 4

Dodgers 2

 

Cards 3

Dodgers 1

2002

Cards 3

D'backs 0

 

Cards 4

D'backs 2

So, with this admittedly small sample size, familiarity and regular season records are inconclusive in terms of October results.

And, remember that while these interleague games count in the standings, they are not as important as victories over teams in the NL Central, where each win or loss has a double impact on the divisional tally.

In conclusion, with the Cardinals' starting pitching staff starting to right itself after a period of ineffectiveness and the offense generally playing good enough to win, this writer hopes these interleague series do not become the defining period of the 2006 Cardinals season for all the wrong reasons.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

© 2006 stlcardinals.scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed.

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