Pujols sent a rocket deep into the San Diego night Monday, snapping the longest home run drought of his career.
|Is Albert Pujols' slump about contract or is he just waiting for 'that' month? (Getty Images)|
"The longer it goes, the sooner it's going to happen," Carpenter was saying in his best Yogi Berra.
No sooner had Carpenter spoken than, ka-blam!, Pujols sent two big flies to center field that likely would have left any park other than Petco, then rifled the line-drive laser over the left-field fence.
Tony La Russa, this year battling shingles while watching Pujols hit singles, said the home run was the "worst" ball Pujols hit all night.
Carpenter simply spied me in the clubhouse afterward, grinned, and said, "I told you it was a matter of time."
So the Great Albert Pujols Home Run Crisis is long gone.
Quick, somebody clear the scoreboard and start the count anew.
What is up with Pujols this year, anyway?
A mere eight home runs? A .421 slugging percentage (down 203 points from his career .624)? A .340 on-base percentage (down 86 points from his career .426)? A pedestrian .268 batting average (down 63 points from his career .331)?
"I hope" I hit another home run, Pujols was telling me during a conversation before Monday's series opener here. "But if it doesn't happen, then so what? That's how I look at it. As long as we're winning games."
St. Louis is in first place in the NL Central and Pujols likes to cast himself as the ultimate team guy, and that's fine. But "so what" if no more home runs come? The Pujols shield is up, and it's impossible to take that seriously.
He's been on the defensive since Day 1 of spring training this year, when his self-imposed deadline for signing a new contract came and went and an army of television cameras and microphones greeted him in the Florida sunshine.
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Since then, Pujols hasn't exactly embarked on a classic salary drive. If there's an opposite of performance in a contract year, this appears to be it.
As Pujols' lumber slumbers, the conspiracy theorists are checking in. Distractions because of his uncertain future? The hamstring he tweaked on April 23 still bothering him? Old age (he's listed as 31)?
My guess is that it comes back to something he told Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki at last year's All-Star Game, that sometimes it's a matter of waiting for that one month that makes your season. We've regularly seen those scorching stretches from Pujols, much like the month of May Adrian Gonzalez is producing in Boston.
Tulowitzki told me about that conversation this spring, when I was writing about players who mysteriously start slowly each season, because it really stuck with him. I relayed that to Pujols on Monday and he smiled and nodded.
"The reality is, that's it," he said. "You get into the season, you have a couple of good months, and then the rest you try to survive. Then that's it, you have your season. A lot of things can happen in 30 games, 20 games, however many games you play in a month.
"You see a lot of crazy things happen in this game. I just tell him, it's not how you start, it's how you finish."
Odd thing about Pujols' slow start in 2011 is, surrounded by Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday in the lineup, and with Yadier Molina having a career-year offensively, Pujols has more protection than he's ever had.
Maybe, suggested a scout, that's factoring into his early funk: Maybe since he knows he doesn't have to carry such a heavy RBI burden, he hasn't been as disciplined at the plate.
"He's not the same guy right now," the scout said. "He's pull-happy. He's not interested in going the other way anymore."
Consequently, the scout said, opposing pitchers are pitching him away successfully more often than not.
As for other reasons, Pujols shoots down the contract stuff ("I don't want to talk about that.").
"Starting in spring training, much less the season, he's very conscious that he doesn't want to distract from what we're trying to do," La Russa said. "And that's a very honorable thing to do."
Pujols and the Cardinals both maintain that his left hamstring is sound. He's been running full-bore on the bases. General manager John Mozeliak notes that he's "gotten a couple of infield hits." He has, however, grounded into a major-league high 14 double plays.
La Russa says that since the season's first 10 games, after which Pujols was hitting .150/.222/.225, his swing has improved. As the slugger works on honing it, La Russa says, rival pitchers are "still pitching him like he's hitting .350. Every at-bat is a tough at-bat for him."
"I do think he's set big expectations for himself," La Russa says. "He can't do bad on purpose so the expectations drop.
"He's had periods where, if he hasn't had a home run for 10 days, somebody brings that up just because you get tired of complimenting him. That's always been one of my grudges against the press. He's hitting .380 in September and if he hasn't had a home run in two weeks, someone asks."
Before now, Pujols' longest stretch between homers was 103 plate appearances in 2007, and 79 straight at-bats in 2009.
"One thing is, the weather, the ball has not been carrying," La Russa said. "He's hit four or five balls to the warning track in our ballpark where, compared to other ballparks, he'd have had home runs.
"He's making better contact virtually every week. He's gotten his average to a decent spot. And we've got four months left to play. He's going to have an Albert season. Nobody ever says hey, he's not a threat anymore and pitches him down the middle."
Maybe that one scorching month this summer is still out there, as it has been in the past.
"I still have that same feeling every time he comes up to the plate," Carpenter said. "That he's going to hit a home run."
This year, so far, he just ... isn't.