- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2006

ST. LOUIS — Even considering Barry Bonds and his 711 home runs, there isn’t a more feared hitter right now than Albert Pujols.

Just ask the Washington Nationals. On Friday night, Nationals reliever Felix Rodriguez threw a 95-mph sinker down and in to Pujols only to watch the ball wind up in the left field bleachers at new Busch Stadium.

So when Pujols came to the plate in the eighth yesterday of a tie game, Washington right-hander Jon Rauch decided to try to keep the ball on the outside portion of the plate. Rauch did keep it outside, and though he got the ball up a little higher than he would have liked, it still should have been good enough.

Wrong. Pujols calmly stuck his bat out and drove the ball to right field. It landed some 411 feet later for his record-setting 14th home run of the season and the deciding blow in the Cardinals’ 2-1 victory before a crowd of 39,596.

With one game left in the series, Washington is starting to wonder if there’s any effective way to pitch to the St. Louis first baseman.

“You don’t want him to beat us,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “But when a guy goes out and gets the ball off the plate, I mean, it’s really hard. Where do you go now?”

How about New York? The Nationals (8-16), though, can’t depart for Shea Stadium and this week’s series against the Mets until they play today’s finale in St. Louis.

Perhaps right-hander Zach Day and the relievers who follow would be wise to just pitch around Pujols, who broke Ken Griffey Jr. and Luis Gonzalez’s previous record for home runs in April with yesterday’s towering blast. Even if manager Frank Robinson doesn’t believe in that strategy.

“He’s not hard to pitch to,” Robinson said. “But as I said before, you can’t make mistakes on him. I thought we did a real good job the first two ballgames on him, and even leading up to that at-bat. We didn’t execute, and he made us pay the price.”

Did he ever. Pujols’ solo shot off Rauch (0-1) ruined an otherwise quality performance from the Nationals, who received seven stellar innings from Livan Hernandez and nearly pulled out a victory.

Hernandez bore no resemblance to the pitcher who entered with a 6.68 ERA and a load of questions about his shaky April performances. Feeling more confident about his surgically repaired knee, the right-hander regularly topped 90 mph with his fastball for the first time this season, allowed only three hits and one unearned run that wasn’t even close to being his fault.

With a runner on first and one out in the first, Hernandez got Pujols to hit a routine fly to right field. Jose Guillen camped under the ball to make an easy catch, then stunningly dropped it. He still had a chance to get a force out at second base, but Jose Vidro’s relay throw to shortstop Royce Clayton was low and it skipped away.

A single and a sacrifice fly later, the Cardinals had a 1-0 lead.

“That was kind of a rookie mistake there,” Guillen said, adding: “I’m pretty sure I really cost us the whole game right there.”

Maybe, maybe not. Guillen did atone for his mistake in the fourth inning, when he lined a shot to left off St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter for his first home run in his last 62 at-bats.

That tied the game 1-1 and allowed both pitchers to continue their duel. Hernandez did his part, allowing just one more hit the rest of the way. Sitting on 99 pitches, a relatively low count for him, he might have returned to the mound for the eighth inning. But Hernandez informed Robinson he’d had enough, not wanting to risk a sour ending to his outstanding start.

“The team is not going to lose the game, because the bullpen is great,” Hernandez said. “The game is 1-1, and I pitched seven good innings. Sometimes you’ve got to take the chance and leave the game so your mind is ready for the next time.”

So in came Rauch, the 6-foot-11 reliever who entered with a 1.35 ERA and a 71/3-inning scoreless streak. Not for long. His 2-1 fastball to Pujols proved to be the fateful pitch. Not that there was much Rauch felt he could do about it.

“The guy just set a major league record today, didn’t he? Fourteen home runs in April,” he said. “You tip your hat and you go on. I made a bad pitch and he hit it. That’s what he does.”

Still, the Nationals had an opportunity to tie or take the lead in the ninth when Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen walked the bases loaded with two outs to bring Nick Johnson to the plate.

Washington could not have asked for a better situation, with the club’s best all-around hitter in the box and a pitcher on the mound who had just thrown four straight balls to the previous batter.

So when Johnson (as patient a hitter as they come) swung at Isringhausen’s first-pitch fastball and tapped weakly back to the mound for the final out, it was almost too hard to believe.

“I just went after it too hard,” he said. “I’ve got to let it come to me. I tried to go get it.”

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