ST. LOUIS (AP) — If this is Albert Pujols’ farewell tour with the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s coming on the grandest of stages.
The three-time National League MVP has consistently avoided discussing free agency and was not making exceptions on the eve of the World Series. Swatting aside questions about his future not once but three times Tuesday, the big bat for the wild-card Cardinals was insistent on staying in the moment.
“Let’s talk about something else,” Pujols said. “Let’s talk about baseball. I don’t concentrate about that.”
Contract talks can wait just a little longer for the front office, too. General manager John Mozeliak declined to estimate the odds Pujols will be batting third on opening day in 2012 for the Cardinals after building a Hall of Fame resume in his first 11 seasons in St. Louis.
Mozeliak has gone all year without addressing that weighty topic after Pujols cut off negotiations on the first day of spring training, and found no reason to break the truce now.
“I think at this point we’ll table all free agents until our season ends,” Mozeliak told The Associated Press. “The way I’d like to look at things from tomorrow on is just enjoy the experience.
“It’s been a very unique ride and it’s time to step back and just enjoy it,” he added.
Pujols has been at the forefront of a team that disposed of the 102-win Phillies and Brewers, the club that finished ahead of them to win the NL Central, since completing an improbable comeback to take the wild card. He’s batting .419 with two home runs and 10 RBIs and an on-base percentage near .500 in the postseason, keeping his free agent value sky high.
He’s very much on the minds of the Texas Rangers.
Texas lefty C.J. Wilson, who opposes St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter in Game 1 Wednesday night, will be facing Pujols for the first time. He’s worried about the big bats surrounding Pujols, too.
Lance Berkman provides power from the left side and Matt Holliday is regaining his stroke after missing time with a finger injury. Sixth-place hitter David Freese was the NL championship series MVP and is batting .425 with four homers and 14 RBIs overall in the postseason.
“Holliday’s the biggest human being I’ve ever seen,” the Rangers’ Ian Kinsler said. “He’s humongous. And you’ve got Pujols right in front of those guys.”
So there’s a lot to consider.
“It’s an American League lineup, just like ours,” Wilson said. “It’s the same way I have to navigate a Yankees game or a Red Sox game or anything like that.”
Pujols, he knows, is the key.
“I made a joke the other day, ‘Yeah, I’ll just throw it down the middle,’ because I’m not going to tell you guys what my game plan is,” Wilson said. “You can’t just go there and try to be macho and throw the ball as hard as you can.
“I think you guys have seen that he’s hit like 500 home runs or something like, so it’s not really a good idea,” Wilson said.
Pujols is the first player in major league history to hit 30 homers, drive in 100 runs and hit .300 each of his first 10 seasons and missed by a hair of making it 11 in a row this year — he batted .299 and had 99 RBIs. Manager Tony La Russa has always been sensitive to overpraise, but in this case can’t help himself.
“I said after his rookie year, he’s the best player I’ve ever seen, and that was 10 years ago,” La Russa said. “I can’t tell you what a privilege it is to watch the guy for 11 years, the way he plays the game and the way he is off the field.”
Maybe not the best Cardinal, though. At least not yet.
Pujols rejects the notion he nearly stands as an equal with St. Louis Hall of Famer Stan Musial, who is graced with two statues outside Busch Stadium.
“Stan Musial’s always going to be the top of this organization, the face of this organization,” Pujols said. “Stan Musial is always going to be on top.”
Around Labor Day, Pujols thought the Cardinals were going nowhere and just wanted to finish strong. Fans showered Pujols with applause during the final regular-season home series against the Cubs, figuring that was his finale. They’re about to get another bonus shot at attempting to sway No. 5’s mind.
Teammates have done their part, too.
“Chucking the ball across the diamond to Albert Pujols every day, that’s something I never thought would happen,” said Freese, a hometown star. “He’s one of the greatest hitters ever. It’s pretty incredible to put on the jersey next to him.”
NOTES — The Cardinals plan to place starter Jake Westbrook on the World Series roster in place of Kyle McClellan, who only pitched one-third of an inning in the NLCS. Westbrook could be a hedge in case Carpenter, who had a minor elbow issue after his last start, encounters trouble. ... 2B Skip Schumaker, who has recovered from a pulled side muscle after a cortisone injection, also is likely to be on the roster in place of rookie OF Adron Chambers.