On an individual basis, the MV3 finished third, fourth and fifth respectively in the National League Most Valuable Player Award voting that season. In fact, the votes Pujols received plus those garnered by either one of the other two would have been enough to take home the trophy.
Fast forward two seasons. While the big names on the Cardinals roster remain the same, their contributions have diverged. Or, should I say, Pujols has moved into an entirely different orbit from not only Rolen and Edmonds, but also every other player in the solar system wearing a baseball uniform.
Coming into Monday night's game, Pujols' play has truly been at an All-Universe level. He leads the league in at least five major categories – home runs, runs batted in, slugging percentage, runs scored and total bases. He is third in on-base percentage and fourth in walks. In most of the categories he leads, Pujols holds a significant advantage over the second-ranked player.
All in all, Pujols has delivered about as impressive performance over the first 44 games of the season as has ever been seen. You doubt this is an out-of-this-world performance? How about these factoids, then?
Pujols helped his team start off quickly this season and in many games. He has a Major League-leading 14 go-ahead RBI and 11 game-winning RBI, including nine in the Cardinals' first 19 wins.
Pujols makes his long flies count. Nine of his 22 home runs this season gave the Cardinals the lead in the game in which they were hit.
Pujols produces runs. Despite opposing hurlers becoming increasingly wary of pitching to him, Pujols has driven in runs in nine of his last ten games. His 675 RBI since joining the league in 2001 bests all NL players, even Barry Bonds.
Still, the 2006 Cardinals are not a one-man team - or even a three-man team.
And, I am not even talking about the pitchers. Putting aside the league-leading pitching staff, whose 3.44 ERA is almost a half run a game better than the next best squad. Putting aside the starting rotation, whose 23 wins lead the circuit. Putting aside the National League's top bullpen with a stellar 2.82 ERA with an opposing batting average of .206 is patently unfair.
Yet, Pujols isn't standing alone on the offensive side of the house, either. His MV3 partners are also doing their parts. Despite his continued rehabilitation from two shoulder surgeries and missing time from April 25 through May 3 due to a respiratory virus, Scott Rolen leads the Cardinals with nine doubles, 50% more than the next closest player.
Jim Edmonds, at age 36, may be nearing the end of a long and productive career and wondering where he will play in 2007. Still, despite hitting just .252, Edmonds is second only to Pujols on the team with five home runs (tied with Juan Encarnacion), 29 RBI and 21 walks. Don't set out that rocking chair for him just yet.
The 2006 Cardinals have shown much more with the bat than just what the MV3 is providing. Five front-line players are hitting over .300 along with Pujols and Rolen, while six are under .300. Of those five leaders, each is an important contributor in his own right.
Lead-off man and offensive sparkplug David Eckstein has nine more hits than the Great Pujols and also leads the team in stolen bases with four. He is second behind Albert in both runs scored and total bases, a significant accomplishment for a man characterized by some as a just a slap hitter.
Big results also come from unexpected places. While John Rodriguez' team-leading batting average, currently .351, has received a lot of play, how many Cardinals fans also appreciate his patience at the plate? Rodriguez is second to Pujols on the team with an on-base percentage of .412.
Utilityman Scott Spiezio doesn't even have a regular position to play, but isn't letting that bother him. Believe it or not, the switch-hitter is second to Pujols on the Cardinals with a slugging percentage of .534.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Albert Pujols is having a fantastic season. No doubt about that. Sure, Pujols won't continue at this rate and end the year with 81 home runs and 199 RBI, but he won't have to.
The other 24 men on the St. Louis Cardinals' roster are also contributing significantly. Yet, perhaps because the load is so well-distributed after Pujols, some are concerned over the fact that the 2006 Cardinals have not met their stride.
Let's step back for a minute. From the distance, it is impossible to ignore the bottom line. The Cards' 29 wins lead the National League and are tied for tops in Major League Baseball along with the Detroit Tigers.
I ask you - Who wouldn't be satisfied with 107 victories, which is the Cardinals' current pace? That would be the winningest regular season in team history and just one game short of the National League's best since the 162-game schedule came into being in 1962. The 1975 Reds and the 1986 Mets, both legendary teams, each won 108.
Sure, Tony La Russa needs to keep the pressure on to play a "hard nine" every game, to win each series and to drive to the next milestone of fifteen games over .500, then twenty and so on.
But, that doesn't mean the rest of us can't sit back and enjoy what is shaping up to be another magical season for the St. Louis Cardinals.
And yes, for Albert Pujols, too.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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