Story by Brady Holtzhauer
Batting titles, the 2005 NL MVP award, 5 All-Star Games … the accolades for Albert Pujols during his six seasons in the majors are abundant. And the 2006 season brought two new honors to help round out his massive resume:
**A Gold Glove marked Albert's great work ethic in improving his defense at first base.
**And, even more important, a World Series Championship marked a gutsy team effort by Albert and his cohorts.
The team's improbable postseason run didn't seem quite so improbable early in the season. After playing for his native Dominican Republic in the March World Baseball Classic, Albert started the regular season hitting .315 with 25 homeruns through May while helping the Cardinals climb to 34-19.
But injuries took a toll on the team throughout much of the season, and Albert wasn't immune. He went on the DL for the first time in his career when he strained his right oblique muscle in a loss to the Chicago Cubs.
But almost three weeks later he provided a slight sign of things to come. Returning to the lineup in time to face the Detroit Tigers in an interleague matchup, Albert went 4-for-4 with his 26th homerun.
Three months later, a finally healthy Cardinals lineup barely staved off the Houston Astros to reach the postseason. Albert began the NLDS vs. the San Diego Padres with a game-breaking two-run homer in the first game of the series. That helped pave the way to the Cardinals' fifth NLCS bid in seven years.
An absolutely electrifying and oh-so nerve-wracking 7-game NLCS with the heavily favored Mets included a clutch homerun by Pujols vs. Tom Glavine and four more runs scored by Pujols, who was walked seven times in the series.
That NLCS title paved the way for the rematch with the Tigers, who had swept the Cardinals in June and were projected by many to again dominate the matchup. But once more, Albert helped set the stage with a big Game 1 homer, this time launching his first World Series home run in a three-run third inning en route to a 7-2 win. Four games later, thanks to giant performances by shortstop David Eckstein and reliever Adam Wainwright and key plays from many Cardinals - including Albert's throw from his back to catch Placido Polanco at first base in Game 5, the Cardinals won their first World Championship since 1982.
"Now I can say I have a World Series ring in my trophy case," said Albert to reporters. "And that's what you play for. It doesn't matter how much money you make or what kind of numbers you put up in the big leagues. If you walk out of this game and you don't have a ring, you haven't accomplished everything."
Albert's always strong batting numbers included a top-five finish in the NL in batting average, batting average with runners in scoring position, home runs, RBIs, runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He also went on to finish second in voting for NL MVP, marking his third second-place finish. He has finished in the top four for the award in each of his six of his major-league seasons.
Not to be overlooked, Albert's Gold Glove for his work in the field was the Cardinals' first at first base since 1982, when Keith Hernandez won the honor. (Teammate and third baseman Scott Rolen earned his seventh Gold Glove in 2006, marking his fourth in five seasons with the Cardinals.) Albert made the move to first base full-time for the 2004 season and in 2006 posted a .996 fielding percentage.
"He knew what he needed to do," Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He knew when he needed to make a certain play and when he didn't need to. He was aggressive at the right time and took the sure out at the right time. He also got a lot better at the double play."
"I've always had good hands but Oquendo helped me relax and just play the game over there," Albert told the Post. "He worked with me a lot from the first day I went over there. He never stopped, not three years ago, not this year."
Story submitted by aspiring sports writer Brady Holtzhauer. Brady is a 17 year old high school student from Gillett, Arkansas.