- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

ST. LOUIS | The Washington Nationals step into the path of arguably the greatest right-handed power hitter in baseball history on Thursday night, and he is on a rampage.

No, neither Manny Ramirez of the Los Angeles Dodgers nor Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees will be at Nationals Park. The same holds for a pair of living Hall of Famers, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

Indeed, the designation of most powerful force from the right side may fall squarely upon St. Louis’ Albert Pujols. As the Cardinals drop in to make up a game postponed in May, Pujols is pulling away from the field.

“At this point, he should be considered with the greatest players who have ever played,” St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. “He’s got to keep doing it, doing it, doing it.”

Pujols’ .630 career slugging percentage is the highest all-time among right-handed hitters. Jimmie Foxx (.609) and Hank Greenberg (.605) are the only other right-handed hitters with a career slugging percentage of more than .600.

Now, Pujols is pushing to become the first Triple Crown winner since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. No one discounts his chances.

Pujols went into Wednesday night’s game at Houston leading the National League in homers with 34 and RBI with 90. He ranked fourth in average at .332, 16 points behind Florida’s Hanley Ramirez. Pujols has hit better than .355 twice in the last six seasons.

“It’s realistic,” Dodgers manager Joe Torre said of Pujols’ chances at a Triple Crown. “He’s scary because he doesn’t have any holes. That’s frightening.”

Pujols led the NL in average (.347), homers (51) and RBI (153) from last year’s All-Star break to this year’s.

“It’s certainly no disrespect to the other players, but this guy is the best hitter and the best player in all of baseball,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said.

With that comes an extra responsibility.

Like all other players, Pujols performs under the cloud of the steroids era. Every extraordinary performance is viewed skeptically.

Pujols has passed every drug test in his career, but he knows the whispers are out there. Because of that, Pujols used the All-Star Game platform to invite more scrutiny.

“My house is always open,” Pujols said, speaking in his native Spanish. “They can come anytime to do all the testing they want to do in the offseason.

“I challenge them to try training with me. They can come check every place in my house. They can come with me in my bathtub. I have nothing to hide.”

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To understand what separates Pujols from everyone else, consider this: He could become the first league leader in home runs in more than a half-century to have fewer strikeouts than homers.

Pujols went into the game against the Astros with only four more strikeouts (38) than homers. Tampa Bay’s Carlos Pena led the American League with 24 homers, almost enough to offset his league-high 119 strikeouts.

Ted Kluszewski is the last hitter to lead a league in homers with fewer strikeouts than long balls. Kluszewski, a left-handed hitter, had 49 homers and 35 strikeouts with Cincinnati in 1954.

Pujols is a throwback in that he despises strikeouts. He considers them the ultimate in tossed-away at-bats. He is the anti-Adam Dunn.

Pujols has had fewer than 70 strikeouts annually since his rookie season of 2001. A year ago, Pujols had only 54 strikeouts in 524 at-bats and finished among the NL’s top four in the Triple Crown categories.

Strength, balance and intelligence make Pujols a threatening hitter in any count. He is uniquely able to adjust to avoid the strikeout and still hit for power when deep in a count. He began Wednesday’s play with eight homers with two strikes in the count.

“The game can keep you hungry and force you to make adjustments,” Pujols said. “That’s the main thing. We can’t be perfect. We try to be perfect, but we can’t be.”

Pujols’ performance this season is more remarkable when it’s put into the context of opponents’ strategy.

There is no reason to pitch to Pujols. Former Colorado manager Clint Hurdle presciently said before the season that Pujols “is going to get the Barry Bonds treatment and more.”

Before a recent series, Leyland said he would pitch around Pujols rather than challenge him “even if I had Dizzy Dean pitching.” Pujols took four walks, three intentional, in three games against the Tigers.

Unlike Bonds, who stubbornly led the NL in walks 12 times, Pujols does not passively accept the walks. He dislikes walks almost as much as strikeouts

Pujols reached 100 walks for the first time in his career last season. He began Wednesday’s play with 74, most in the NL but nowhere near Bonds’ level. As teams try to work around him, Pujols expands his hitting zone.

Sometimes that leads to brief brownouts. Pujols and the Cardinals accept that because the trade-off is more chances for him to do damage.

“My favorite thing about him is he comes to the ballpark every day trying to figure out how he personally can help his team win,” La Russa said.

Having one of the best right-handed power hitters ever is a good place for the Cardinals to start.

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