HOUSTON -- One battle is just about over. Albert Pujols has pretty much established himself as the player of his era. Over his nine seasons in the big leagues, he's played at such a high level, so reliably, that there's scarcely any debate as to who the best player in the game is.

Now, though, it gets interesting. As Pujols gets deeper into his career, he begins to carve out his place not just in his era, but in the game's history. After next season, he will have the 10 years necessary for appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot. And he's one of the few players to have a Hall-worthy body of work before he's even eligible to be voted upon.

Pulse
Cardinals at a glance
2009 record: 91-71
2008 record: 86-76
NL Central champs

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
McClellan: Hometown boy
Cards: Shaking off walk-off
Ludwick: Dream fulfilled
Hawksworth: On way up
Ryan: Playing it cool
Pujols: Ready for fun stuff
Wainwright: Proud, durable
Holliday: Kids' play
Pujols: Triple Crown?
La Russa: 14th postseason
Carpenter: Heart of staff
Pujols: Eschewing rest
Holliday: A perfect fit
Carpenter: Ready to go
La Russa: Getting proactive
Wainwright: Apt pupil
Pujols: His place in history?
Pujols: The evolution
Holliday: Offensive spark
La Russa: Controls fate
Pujols: MVP No. 3?
Wainwright: Mr. Consistent
La Russa: Winning cures all
Carpenter: A go Game 1
Holliday: Big impact
Wainwright: Cy in cards?

Pujols has long deflected any talk of his place in history, or how he compares to the game's all-time greats. But in a quiet moment, he admits that it's heady company, and that he appreciates the position he's in. He's been compared to Joe DiMaggio for his combination of power, a high batting average and low strikeout totals. This year, he's tied Ernie Banks' National League record for grand slams in a season and moved into third place on the Cardinals' all-time list in both RBIs and doubles.

It goes on, and on. Pujols hears it. And he knows it's pretty special.

"I don't like to compare myself with any of those guys," he said. "I respect those guys and what they did, what they accomplished. Don't get me wrong. I'm blessed to be named in the same category as those guys. But those guys are Hall of Famers and they deserve every respect, which people give them.

"But it doesn't bother me anymore. I just don't concentrate on it. I don't think about it. It's the truth. I don't play for numbers. I play first of all to glorify God and to accomplish in this game what everybody wants to accomplish, which is getting to the World Series and coming up with a win at the end. Those are the things that I really try to focus on and try to make sure that I do every day for the rest of my career."

Pujols is likely to reach 400 home runs next season. He topped 1,000 RBIs and 1,000 runs this year, and he's a lifetime .334 hitter. This year, he's at 47 home runs, two shy of a career high, while once again keeping his strikeouts down and his walks and batting average up. His defense has remained exceptional. He's even stolen 14 bases, two short of a career high, while only being caught four times.

"He just hits line drives that go out of the park," said manager Tony La Russa. "That's why he's a .330 hitter. He's a great hitter. He catches it, and it goes. He's a high-average hitter with power."

Still, there have been a few greater hitters. Pujols needs to do it for a while longer before his full career stands alongside those of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. But it's a very short list of players who have been Pujols' equal as both a hitter and an all-around player.

And beyond that, how many times can you even bring up a player's name in the same paragraph as Ruth, Williams and Gehrig without being laughed at? One of Pujols' teammates, in fact, is convinced that he's already there.

"I don't know how anybody could ever be better than he is," Adam Wainwright said recently. "Ever. No offense to Henry Aaron and all those guys. I'm sorry, Hank. Albert Pujols is really, really good."

Pujols won't put himself in that class, of course. But he does at least acknowledge that it's meaningful. Usually, after a game when he's reached a milestone or broken a record, he brushes the talk away. With some time to reflect recently, though, he was more willing to go into the topic.

"It's something that I don't think about," he said. "If it happens, great. Praise God, I'm blessed that it happened. But it's not what I play for.

"I do want that -- I want to be a Hall of Famer. That's something that obviously I want to accomplish. I want to be mentioned with the greatest players that ever played this game. But at the same time, that's not what I play for."