- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

ST. LOUIS — Hard to imagine how well Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen would be hitting if they were completely healthy.

Because even though they’re banged up, they’re doing just fine for the runaway St. Louis Cardinals.

“Scott and Albert would be my two MVPs, not only on this team but in all of baseball,” Cardinals pitcher Jason Marquis said. “Everybody in baseball knows they’re two of the greatest players.”

Add in the big numbers of Jim Edmonds, and it’s easy to see why the Cardinals have the best record in the majors and a 15-game lead in the National League Central.

Before every game, Pujols’ first stop is the training room, where his left ankle is treated and wrapped.

Pujols has inflammation of the large tendon running along the bottom of his foot, an injury that more commonly afflicts long distance runners. It won’t go away without rest.

“I can’t tell you where it started or when it started or even how it started,” Pujols said. “But I can tell you it hurts bad; I can tell you that for sure.”

The problem bothers him most when he runs. But the first baseman is playing through the pain.

Pujols has 100 RBI for the fourth straight season. He’s already reached 100 runs for the fourth straight year and is hitting .324 with 40 home runs.

After a slow start it’s looking like another MVP-caliber season for Pujols, the runner-up to Barry Bonds the last two seasons. He batted .287 in April, .317 in May, .292 in June and .374 in July.

“When I cross that white line, I’m ready to play,” Pujols said. “I don’t care about what kind of injury I have. If I have to push it, I’m going to push it because that’s the way I am.”

It’ll be a hard sell for manager Tony La Russa, trying to persuade Pujols to take a few days off down the stretch. Pujols said he doesn’t want to rest.

“I need to go out and play the game.” he said.

Watching Rolen, it’s easy to forget that he’s hurt, too.

Rolen has 112 RBI, along with 31 home runs and a .324 average. The five-time Gold Glove third baseman is turning in highlight-reel plays on a daily basis.

“I’m too young to have seen some of the older players that people talk about, like Brooks Robinson, but I can’t imagine anybody being better than him,” Marquis said. “I’m just glad he’s on my side.”

But Rolen is persevering through an injured left knee that likely will require offseason surgery. Cartilage damage caused bone bruises that hobbled him for several weeks and robbed him of some of his power.

Right now he feels good, but it’s a day-to-day proposition.

“I still have the same problem with cartilage but I don’t have the bruises, so I feel pretty good,” Rolen said. “I’m not limping. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to get hurt again.”

Together, ailing or not, Pujols and Rolen make up the most potent 3-4 combination in the major leagues, and both could build a strong MVP case.

Rolen and Pujols spur each other. Pujols has been gaining steadily on his teammate. He’s definitely having the better August, which has put him in the running for his first home run title. With 40, he is three short of his career high set last year

“I think one reason he’s so productive is he doesn’t try to hit home runs,” La Russa said. “He just tries to hit the ball hard, and some of his hard contact leaves the park. I really do believe he’s mostly a line-drive hitter and once in a while and once in a while he gets the right spin and it carries.”

Rolen, meanwhile, has surpassed his career best of 110 RBI. If Pujols catches him in the RBI race, Rolen won’t mind because that will mean the Cardinals are still rolling toward their fourth postseason berth in five years. When he was with the Phillies, Rolen remembers a friendly home-run competition that turned sour.

“Ultimately, one guy hit a homer, another guy doesn’t, they’re riding each other, one guy gets upset and you start rooting against the guy,” Rolen said. “That ain’t right.”

So he’ll be cheering along with the rest of his teammates. The Cardinals would expect nothing less from their cleanup hitter.

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