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03/24/10 5:51 PM ET

Pujols returns to Cardinals' lineup

Star battling tight back; Lugo recovering from groin strain

JUPITER, Fla. -- Back problems struck again recently for Albert Pujols, but the Cardinals' slugger returned to the lineup on Wednesday. And despite going 0-for-3 to bring his spring batting average down to .208, Pujols said he felt good, and he's expected to play again on Thursday against the Mets.

That's all that matters at this point.

"I swung the bat OK, the way I wanted, with no pain," Pujols said. "It was a good release."

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina left Wednesday's game early with a strained right oblique, but the team's lineup card was a positive one in the morning, as Pujols and Julio Lugo -- nursing a groin strain -- made their return.

Scratched from Monday's home game against the Red Sox due to recurring tightness in his lower back, Pujols underwent an MRI exam and took an anti-inflammatory shot that day. Then, after an off-day on Tuesday, he was back hitting third for St. Louis' game against Baltimore at Roger Dean Stadium.

Pujols also missed time from March 8-13, but he doesn't think the back injury would linger into the season, saying: "I doubt it. I'm not worried about anything. I can't read the future, but I'm not concerned about it."

"There were days it got better, other days it just grabbed me back again," Pujols said about the ongoing issue. "Today, I can say that I can swing the bat and it didn't grab me at all. I was able to hit the ball to right field and pull a couple of balls down the line, which, last week, even though I pulled the ball, I still felt a little bit grab. It felt good. Hopefully now, just stay on top of it, make sure that I go in, get my exercise and get my treatment."

The three-time National League Most Valuable Player has now appeared in eight of the Cardinals' 19 Grapefruit League games, going 5-for-24 with a homer and four RBIs. Pujols -- who got the MRI on Monday so the Cardinals could determine where to give him the shot -- has no doubts he'll be ready for the start of the season and said he doesn't think he came back too soon after suffering the back injury the first time.

"I don't think so, because I think I know how to back off on my body," Pujols said. "Like I did Monday, I felt like I couldn't play Monday, so I said, 'You know what, I can't play, let's go do the MRI and see what's going on.'

"It was a big release [to get the MRI], because I wanted to make sure it wasn't crazy. Would it be better if we would've done the MRI two weeks ago? Yes, to find out what's going on. But it's tough when you feel good one day, and then two days later you feel stiff again."

Lugo had been out since the March 13 game against the Astros, when he went 2-for-4 with a homer but suffered the groin injury in his final at-bat.

The 34-year-old, who led off and played second base Wednesday, said he's "not 100 percent yet." Lugo's groin is still grabbing on him when he makes quick jolts and side movements.

"A couple of more games, I'll be fine," said Lugo, who went 1-for-3 and is now batting .292 in seven Grapefruit League games.

Lugo looked to be the Cardinals' utility man this year. But that was until Felipe Lopez was signed. Now, it doesn't look like there's much playing time for him.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.