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Futures of Prince and Pujols rumble under the surface in NLCS


Albert Pujols is an icon in St. Louis but will be a free agent after the season ends. (Getty Images)  
Albert Pujols is an icon in St. Louis but will be a free agent after the season ends. (Getty Images)  

MILWAUKEE -- It's like the old prank telephone call: "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?"

Updated, modern NL Championship Series version: Prince, Albert, out of the can?

Two large dudes. Two enormous seasons. One yellow brick road.

Who knows how many clubs will be offering to re-pave it with gold bricks this winter?

The ground is quaking regularly beneath first base in this NLCS, and not as a result of Prince Fielder's girth or Albert Pujols' worth.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, who loathes the intentional walk, has ordered two of them in five games for Pujols, who is mauling Milwaukee to the tune of a .474 batting average, one homer and seven RBI (five coming in Game 2).

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has countered by walking Fielder intentionally twice, threaded between Fielder's two homers, three RBI and 12 total bases.

"Both of them are having fun," Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina says. "And both of them are having great years."

Though both Pujols and Fielder long ago went mum on their impending free agency, it is impossible not to watch the two franchise icons at work and wonder, as this NLCS moves into its final innings with Game 6 here Sunday, whether we're watching one of them -- or both -- in the middle of his current club's lineup for the final time.

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Nobody, not the Cardinals, not the Brewers, not the other 28 clubs, knows how this is going to play out.

The prediction here is that Pujols re-signs with the Cardinals this winter, because he is as much a part of St. Louis as the Mississippi River and Chuck Berry. In the end, I think both sides will realize that.

The other prediction here is that Fielder leaves the Brewers and signs elsewhere -- the Orioles? Nationals? Marlins? -- because that's what Scott Boras clients do. They spend the winter chasing hard after pots of gold.

"Both great players, been with one organization, with a possibility of maybe moving on," Roenicke acknowledges. "Both of them have performed great. I know Albert got off to a slow start, but his performance lately has been incredible.

"Prince is a guy that is a leader in our clubhouse. He's had a great season. We couldn't be here without what he's done for us this year on the field and off the field."

Fielder, 27, is a three-time All-Star -- and the game's MVP this summer. Pujols, who turns 32 in January, is a three-time MVP and nine-time All-Star.

Quite unpredictably this season, the path has been smoother for Fielder. Pujols got off to one of the worst starts of his career, hitting just .245 at the end of April. Then he hit just two home runs in 126 plate appearances in May.

Pujols, who finished the year batting .299 (the first time in his career he finished below .300) with 37 homers and 99 RBI (first time ever with fewer than 100 RBI), was so off-balance early that he was left off of the NL All-Star team for the first time since 2002.

La Russa says, in his opinion, the slow start had nothing to do with the upcoming uncertainty.

"What happened was what usually happens to him when he tries too hard," La Russa says. "When he does that, he's generally trying to help the team, not trying to generate stats.

"When he backs off, things get a little better."

Fielder, who played in all 162 games for the second time in three years, also hit .299 -- 17 points above his lifetime average. He finished with 38 homers and 120 RBI.

They talked during spring training "about where he was with his free agency", Roenicke says, and the manager figured he may have to revisit that chat a couple of times during the season.

That moment never came.

"He was focused the whole year, kept the clubhouse in order, kept it light when we needed to keep it light," Roenicke says. "His personality has been great this year."

As reserved as Fielder is -- intentionally -- with the media, he's the opposite behind the Brewers' closed clubhouse door. He can be loud, magnetic and funny. Sometimes, that joy is visible on the field, as when he playfully punched Cardinals second baseman Ryan Theriot in the gut rounding first base after Theriot stole a hit from him in Game 4.

"You obviously have respect for what he does on the field," says Theriot, who has known Fielder since 2001. "But he's a great person, too. A great family man and a great player."

Pujols' game always has emoted maniacal intensity more than joy. What not enough people realize is that he doesn't just beat you with his bat. His incredibly anticipatory play in Game 4 against the Phillies -- coming off the first base bag to take shortstop Rafael Furcal's throw more quickly so he could redirect it to third base to cut down Chase Utley, who was attempting to go from first to third on the ground ball -- will stand as one of the defensive highlights of this postseason.

Ace Chris Carpenter explained the other day that one reason he recently signed a hometown discount extension is because of the rich history in the Cardinals organization. Alumni from Bob Gibson to Lou Brock are regulars around Busch Stadium.

While Pujols isn't nearly as outwardly social and warm as many others, there still is no combination of money, organizational history and hometown warmth anywhere else to match what he has in St. Louis. Though, you wonder if his rebuffing of Cardinals' contract offers has begun to change some of the feeling toward him. At dinner in St. Louis the other night, a waitress was critical of her hometown hero, explaining how she used to like him until this year, when his old comments that "it isn't about the money" clearly are not ringing true.

Fielder acknowledged in a late-September interview with TBS that he probably will be playing in a place other than Milwaukee in 2012. That, though, became only a one-day story, says Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who allowed Ivan Rodriguez's impending free agency to become a distraction when he was GM in Texas and vowed never to let that happen again.

"If we weren't winning, it would have been more of an issue," Melvin said. "We said all along, if we win, it would help the club and it would help Prince."

Both missions accomplished, Milwaukee now looks for one more win to push its season to Game 7.

Will Sunday be it for Fielder in Milwaukee?

"He's an awesome teammate," veteran pitcher Randy Wolf says. "He works his tail off every day. He's been awesome for two years. I don't know what will happen this offseason, but I'll definitely root for him to stay here -- selfishly."

If the Brewers come back and win the next two, will Monday be Pujols' final game for St. Louis?

"Everybody's aware of it," Carpenter says. "We're not concerned about it."

Prince, Albert, out of a can?

The ground trembles beneath first base. The NLCS races toward the finish line.


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