Versatility keeps Pujols out this time
Infielder only NL hitter who doesn't play in Midsummer Classic
SAN FRANCISCO -- Albert Pujols' versatility has helped him make it to the All-Star Game at three different positions in his career, four if designated hitter counts as a position. On Tuesday night, though, it kept him out of the Midsummer Classic.
Pujols was the only National League hitter who did not get in the 78th All-Star Game, as manager Tony La Russa held him out as protection in case he needed reinforcements in extra innings. Orlando Hudson and Aaron Rowand, both legitimate All-Stars but neither a hitter of Pujols' caliber, batted with the potential winning run on base while Pujols waited for a chance that never came.
The 2005 NL MVP, who carries a 4-for-11 lifetime mark in All-Star competition, was clearly displeased.
"Ask the manager," Pujols said when asked about not playing. "He's the one that you need to ask. I have no idea."
La Russa explained that he held Pujols out in case he needed a player to fill in should the game have gone more than nine innings. An injury over the weekend to Florida's Miguel Cabrera complicated the National League's bench situation, according to La Russa, and left Pujols as the odd man out. Cabrera, one of two full-time third basemen on the roster, was unavailable to play defense.
"As soon as Cabrera got hurt, the guy who [had been] our versatile, protection player was Freddy Sanchez, and he became our [backup] third baseman," La Russa said. "If you look at the guys who are left, who's the guy who has that versatility? It's Albert Pujols. We're required to be ready to play extra innings. So where are you going to use Albert? You can't use him. You've got to protect him."
Pujols said he was under the impression he would get in the game. He made an effort to stay loose throughout the contest in case he was called upon to hit.
"If I wasn't expecting myself to play, I wouldn't come up here," he said. "Believe me, if I couldn't play, I wouldn't show up here. I'd rather stay home with my family. But that's the way it is."
One apparent opportunity arose in the sixth inning, when the pitcher's spot came up against the Tigers' Justin Verlander with a runner on base and no outs in a one-run game. La Russa called on Colorado's Matt Holliday, rather than Pujols, who has hit Verlander hard in the regular season and in the 2006 World Series.
"I was ready," he said. "I was ready since the third inning, because I know how [La Russa] is. I wanted to make sure that I was ready. ... I was ready for any opportunity. I was born ready, and I look for any opportunity. I just wanted to make sure I stayed loose, and I was loose and ready to go."
The situation that stood out most vividly was the game-ending chance in the ninth. Holliday and catcher Brian McCann went down for the first two outs, but Dmitri Young kept the game alive when he reached on a single that was misplayed by Brian Roberts. Alfonso Soriano homered to cut the American League's lead to 5-4.
Shortstop J.J. Hardy drew a walk, as did Derrek Lee, and the winning run was on base. Hudson's walk loaded the bases, and Rowand flied out to end the game.
"Was I going to pinch-hit him for Rowand? Rowand is a good choice," La Russa said. "He gave us a great at-bat. It's not that tough. And if [Pujols] doesn't understand, I'm disappointed. But I'm more disappointed we lost. He'll figure it out sooner or later."
The alternative might have been to save Sanchez as the utility player, and take advantage of Pujols' bat at some point during the night. However, Cabrera was the only backup third baseman on the roster, so the choices were either to use David Wright for nine innings, play an injured Cabrera, or call on Sanchez as the third baseman.
"Unless it's a blowout game, you need to have somebody to protect extra innings," La Russa said. "So you kept [Roy] Oswalt, you kept [Brandon] Webb and [Jose] Valverde. You've got to play extra innings to conclusion. You can't have a tie. You need to save players. In fact, I played J.J. Hardy to make sure he got an appearance, but I was going to save him and Albert. If you go extra innings, you need more than one player. It isn't that tough."
None of which was much consolation for Pujols, who clearly expected to make at least an appearance.
"It happens to other guys," he said. "Maybe he was saving me for next year's All-Star Game."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.