WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – Albert Pujols has a chance to give his team the ultimate good-bye gift: a World Series title.
The native of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, regarded one of the best players in baseball, should become its highest paid over the next few months as he is set to become a free agent. But before the first baseman cashes in at the bank, he is focused on leading the St. Louis Cardinals to their first championship since 2006.
“Two months ago everybody was making vacation plans and thinking that we were out. And we had 35 games left and we just told ourselves, ‘let’s see how many games we can win,’” Pujols told reporters. “I’ve been blessed to be in so many, and having a World Series ring so young in my career. And I’m just hungry all the time, every day, because you can’t take this game for granted.”
The Cardinals face the Texas Rangers in the World Series, a best-of-seven championship round that begins on Oct. 19 in St. Louis.
Pujols powered a late charge by the Cardinals to overtake the Atlanta Braves on the final day of the regular season for the National League Wild Card. Since then, St. Louis upset heavily favored Philadelphia in five games before downing the Milwaukee Brewers in six.
“Well, Albert is in the conversation of a once-in-a-lifetime type player, and whoever else is in that conversation, have at it,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa told reporters. “But I can’t tell you what a privilege it is to watch this guy for 11 years the way he plays the game, and the way he is off the field. That’s a special man.”
In 11 playoff games, Pujols is hitting a .419 with two home runs, seven doubles and 10 runs batted-in. During the regular season, he hit .299 with 37 home runs and 99 runs batted-in.
“I had an opportunity to contribute, to help my ballgame,” Pujols told reporters. “And I just thank God that today I did. This game is not easy. This game is going to raise you high and going to bring you down. The things you need to do myself as a player, I’ve been in that situation before, is just let the game come to you.”
Also aiding the Cardinals is pitcher Jaime García. The native of Reynosa, Mexico, has started three games this postseason, recording 11 strikeouts against just five walks and leading his team to victory in Game 5 against the Milwaukee Brewers.
García didn’t pick up the win, but his 4 2/3 innings of one-run ball stifled the Brewer bats and allowed his team to earn a 7-1 victory. García will start Game 2 of the World Series on Oct. 20.
During the regular season, García was one of the team’s most consistent hurlers, going 13-7 with a 3.56 earned-run average and 156 strikeouts.
“In the two years he’s been with us, not only is he a very talented pitcher, but he’s pitched very well,” La Russa told reporters. “You have to remember that he is young, and there are times when he has an issue that he’s learning how to make the adjustments. If there’s a Game 6, I’d expect to give it to him again.”
But if Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz has his way, there won’t be a Game 6. The native of Montecristi in the Dominican Republic has been the hottest power hitter this postseason, batting just .243 but clubbing a Major League Baseball postseason series record-six home runs in the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers.
Cruz hit .263 during the regular season with 29 home runs and 87 RBI, good numbers, but nowhere near as good as he is playing this month.
“I thank God because he gave me the chance to perform in that situation,” Cruz told reporters. “It’s not easy, like people ask me if it's that easy. I guess if you can swing good results are going to come.”
Cruz’s performance, which included 13 RBI earned, him ALCS MVP honors and a spot in the World Series as the Tigers were tamed in six games.
Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington told reporters. “With one swing of the bat he can change a ballgame around. And he can change it with a single, double, triple or a home run. So he’s a threat. He allows the guy in front of him to maybe get some pitches that maybe he wouldn’t get normally.”
But it’s not just Latin American hitting that has been key for the Rangers – the pitching hasn’t been bad, either.
Pitcher Neftalí Feliz, a native of Azua, in the Dominican Republic, has used a 100-mph fastball to baffle hitters the past two seasons. During the regular season he was solid, going 2-3 with a 2.74 ERA as he recorded 32 saves.
But in the ALCS against Detroit he was even better, picking up a save and allowing a mere hit over 4 1/3 innings of work.
The former American League Rookie of the Year is dominant in the postseason, allowing just two earned runs on six hits with 16 strikeouts and a 1.20 ERA in 14 career appearances.
“He did it last year in this setting, so he’s under control,” Washington told reporters. “He certainly looked focused to me, and I think with each outing, of course he gains more and more experience. This is his second year as a closer. With each successful outing, it just builds his confidence.”
Latin Americans competing in the World Series
St. Louis Cardinals
No. Pos. Name Ht. Wt. Hometown
28 P Octavio Dotel 6-0 220 Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
54 P Jaime García 6-2 215 Reynosa, Mexico
59 P Fernando Salas 6-2 200 Huatabampo, Mexico
4 C Yadier Molina 5-11 230 Bayamon, Puerto Rico
15 SS Rafael Furcal 5-8 190 Loma de Cabrera, Dominican Republic
5 1B Albert Pujols 6-3 230 Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
No. Pos. Name Ht. Wt. Hometown
30 P Neftalí Feliz 6-3 215 Azua, Dominican Republic
41 P Alexi Ogando 6-4 195 San Pedro, Dominican Republic
8 C Yorvit Torrealba 5-11 200 Caracas, Venezuela
1 SS Elvis Andrus 6-0 200 Maracay, Venezuela
29 3B Adrián Beltré 5-11 220 Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
6 2B Esteban Germán 5-9 195 Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
9 OF Endy Chávez 6-0 170 Valencia, Venezuela
17 OF Nelson Cruz 6-2 240 Montecristi, Dominican Republic