Pujols backs off from All-Star gripes

ST. LOUIS – Albert Pujols wants to make this absolutely clear: He is not feuding with Tony La Russa.

“People want to start World War III with me and Tony, and I think they’re picking the wrong person,” the St. Louis slugger said Thursday during a workout. “I’ve got so much respect for Tony, and he’s got so much respect for me.”

Pujols was the only player from the defending World Series champion Cardinals to be picked for the All-Star game. He also was the only non-pitcher that La Russa, the NL manager, did not use in a 5-4 loss Tuesday night.

La Russa said he saved Pujols in case of extra innings and vowed that the relationship will “stand the test of time.”

“It wasn’t a problem, there isn’t a problem,” La Russa said. “It’s been real clear about how I feel about Albert. Nothing ever changes that. Nothing ever will.”

Pujols was upset after being left on the bench – “If I wasn’t expecting to play, I wouldn’t have come up here,” he said right after the game in San Francisco.

Two days later, back in St. Louis, Pujols sounded more calm.

“Was I disappointed because I didn’t get in the game? Of course, because I’m a competitor,” he said. “Does that make it a big deal? No, it wasn’t a big deal to me, but I guess it was a pretty big deal to everybody else in the country.”

Pujols and La Russa had not talked before the workout, but Pujols expected a conversation and an explanation soon.

“People can talk and waste their saliva, I guess, because they’re not going to get me angry or Tony angry,” Pujols said. “We’ll sit down and talk. I’m looking forward to seeing why he says he didn’t put me in the game.”

Pujols could merely watch as Philadelphia’s Aaron Rowand flied out with the bases loaded to end the the end of the All-Star game. La Russa said he’d have loved to have called on Pujols, but had to guard against a position player being injured if the game went to extra innings.

“Because you manage in the moment, yeah, I wish I sent him out there,” La Russa said. “But the game would have either ended there or ended later if somebody got hurt, and there’s a way to fix it.”

Since the 2002 game ended in an extra-innings tie, manager have tended to hold a hitter back just in case. La Russa said if he ran out of position players he’d rather forfeit than use a pitcher, and called for Major League Baseball to alter rules to allow for more re-entry.

La Russa is just as cautious in regular-season games, almost always saving his backup catcher in case of injury.

Pujols is batting .310 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs despite being mired in a career-worst home run slump of 22 games and 74 at-bats.

The 2005 NL MVP anticipated a chance in the ninth inning Tuesday night, stretching and putting heat on his back and hamstrings, but said he understood when La Russa stuck with Rowand.

Pujols added if somebody had to be left out, he was glad it was him, rather than Rowand or J.J. Hardy of the Brewers, both first-time All-Stars.

“The fans, they obviously want to see me in that situation,” Pujols said. “But you have too many great hitters.”