Despite slow start, Pujols never panicked
Slugger once again Cardinals' nominee for Hank Aaron Award
ST. LOUIS -- As an entire city fretted over his slow start, Albert Pujols remained calm. So did his teammates and his manager. The people in the Cardinals' clubhouse never doubted that Pujols would look like himself again, and soon.
Their faith, unsurprisingly, was rewarded. Pujols roared back from his uncharacteristic start to the season and once again turned in a typically brilliant year. He topped 30 home runs yet again (37), reaching that milestone in mid-August. He fell just shy of an 11th straight season with at least 100 RBIs and a .300 average, driving in 99 runs and hitting .299.
Pujols' final numbers ended up a bit down from his norms, but not excessively so. He enjoyed an Albert Pujols season, just like he has done 10 previous times. And as a result, Pujols is again the Cardinals' nominee for the Hank Aaron Award.
This coveted honor is awarded annually to the best overall offensive performer in both the American League and National League. Originally introduced in 1999 to honor the 25th anniversary of Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, the Hank Aaron Award was the first major award to be introduced in 30 years.
For the second straight year, a special panel of Hall of Fame players led by Aaron will join fans in voting for the award.
This year, the Hall of Fame panel will include two new members -- personally selected by Aaron -- Roberto Alomar and Joe Morgan. They join panelists from last year, which included Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Robin Yount, forming a group comprised of some of the greatest offensive players of all-time. These Hall of Famers -- who combined for 23,536 hits, 11,445 RBI and exactly 2,800 home runs -- have all agreed to join Aaron in lending their expertise to select the best offensive performers in each League.
Fans will have the opportunity to select one American League and one National League winner from a list comprising one finalist per club through Sunday. The winners will be announced during the World Series.
Pujols is a two-time Aaron Award winner, bringing home the hardware in 2003 and '09. He also won the NL MVP Award in '05, '08 and '09, but rarely has he followed a path quite like he did in '11.
As late as June 1, he was batting .262 with a .412 slugging percentage. He broke a bone in his left hand in mid-June, just as he was starting to heat up, and when he came back, he returned to his usual dominance.
"It's easier to build on a good season than to come back from a tough one," manager Tony La Russa said. "Whether you're a team, a pitcher, or Albert, who was in the low .200s with 100, 150 at-bats. You build very slowly and you just have to have so much confidence and not get discouraged. He's done it the hard way."
Along the way, Pujols also picked up the 2,000th hit of his Major League career, adding yet another marker to a career filled with milestones. All the while, he insisted that the stats were the furthest thing from his mind -- even the ultimately elusive .300 line.
"I don't think about numbers," he said recently. "I don't know how many times I tell you guys that, but obviously [hitting .300] is something that you want to do. If you want to have success and hit .300, you're going to be able to drive runs in. ... When you get your hits, it doesn't matter if your power numbers are down. You don't look at it like that, because you're still getting your hits and you don't feel like you're struggling."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.