09/28/2003 9:56 PM ET
Pujols takes home NL batting title
Pujols wins NL Batting title: 56K | 300K
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
Helton walk not totally intentional
PHOENIX -- The Cardinals got to spray some champagne after all.
Minutes after wrapping up their season with a 9-5 win over the Diamondbacks, nearly every St. Louis player crowded into a small room in the back of the visitors clubhouse at Bank One Ballpark. They followed updates of every pitch from San Diego as the Rockies tried to close out their finale against the Padres.
When the final out was recorded, a roar went up. Albert Pujols was the National League batting champion, by .00022 over the Rockies' Todd Helton. At .35871, Pujols became the first Cardinal since Willie McGee in 1990 to win the batting crown, and the first right-handed hitter to lead the NL in batting average since Andres Galarraga in 1993.
"Could you imagine, all season long, you get 590 at-bats and it comes down to one at-bat the last day," Pujols said. "It's unbelievable. But that's the way it is.
"(Helton is) a great hitter. I've got a lot of respect for him. I learn a lot from him, watching him hit every time in BP. It was either gonna be him or me and I'm glad I got it."
The drama played out over the full afternoon, as Pujols and Helton traded the lead back and forth. Pujols struck out in the first inning, but beat out an infield hit in the second. After a groundout in the fourth, he doubled to left field for the advantage he would not give up. The infield single broke a mini-slump and restored Pujols' confidence.
"I was hustling," he said. "I knew if I could get a hit, I was gonna get another one no matter what. That's what I needed, just one hit in this series to get my comfort back, to be sure that I could do it."
Helton had one last chance to pass Pujols, but he was intentionally walked in the eighth inning. A hit in that situation would have given Helton the crown.
"My teammates were ... all over it," Pujols said. "I know if it was meant to be for me, it was gonna be, no matter what. So I just tried to go out there and have fun and get a couple hits, and it happened. That's how it went.
"You work hard all year long, the offseason and during the season, to do this -- to try to have a great year and finish strong. And I did it. I know I struggled the last two days, but I had a big day coming up.
"I'm real happy about it. My third year in the big leagues, to win a batting title, I think it's amazing. But this is over already. I need to take two months off and then get ready for next season. You need to put this in the past."
When the final out was recorded in San Diego and Pujols had the title, the Cardinals popped the champagne and celebrated. It was a disappointing season for a team that had World Series aspiration, so some good news on the final day was more than welcome.
Outfielder Kerry Robinson captured the moment with a pair of pictures on his cell phone, which he proudly displayed in the clubhouse afterward. He showed a shot of Pujols following the action intently, and a shot of the bubbly flowing.
It was a rare Redbird who wasn't deeply engrossed in the final pitches of a game between two second-division teams.
"It's amazing," said Fernando Vina. "The adjustments he makes, everything he does. You add it up, and he's just an amazing player. He wins a batting title, and that's just one of the things that will be coming his way."
Earlier in the year, Pujols appeared to be a serious Triple Crown candidate. He fell out of the running for the RBI championship, and fell short of the home run title. It's unsure if he will bring home MVP honors, though he's sure to finish in the top five for the third time in as many years.
So he's relishing this.
"You talk to any batter, a batting title is huge," he said. "It doesn't matter who you beat. You're talking about, there's 16 teams in your league and there was a bunch of players having a great year in the National League."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.