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Must C Clutch: Pujols cranks go-ahead home run

ANAHEIM -- At one point this season, the pain almost became too much for even Albert Pujols to handle. It was Tuesday, May 7, in Houston. Pujols sat down with head athletic trainer Adam Nevala and manager Mike Scioscia, who tried to convince Pujols that going on the disabled list for a couple weeks would probably be best for the excruciating pain he had been feeling on his left foot since Spring Training.

When Pujols went to bed that night, the organization was convinced their $225 million slugger was headed for the disabled list. Then Pujols woke up, took the early bus to Minute Maid Park and pleaded with Scioscia to let him keep playing, to let him keep suiting up in hopes that his Angels would finally turn it around.

"I just couldn't do it, man," Pujols said. "I just felt too guilty. He was fighting with me on it, and I was like, 'No, no, please, don't do it.'"

Pujols led his team to a 4-3 victory over the Cubs on Tuesday night, hitting a majestic two-run eight-inning homer to bail out a sputtering offense, back a solid Jered Weaver and avoid a five-game losing streak.

The homer, on a first-pitch Carlos Villanueva fastball that caught way too much of the plate, cleared both bullpens, set off fireworks and was befitting of Pujols' Cardinals days, when homers like these were the norm.

"We needed it," shortstop Erick Aybar said, his team coming off a four-game sweep to the last-place Astros and totaling only 19 runs over the last eight games. "We needed a game like that to get us going again."

It was Pujols' ninth home run of the year, first since May 23, and the first go-ahead homer he's hit in the sixth inning or later since joining the Angels (he had 41 with the Cardinals). Aybar pumped his fists from second base as soon as his buddy connected, and Pujols admired it as he took a few slow steps up the first-base line.

Pujols is still batting only .244, his .734 OPS not even among the top 100 in the Majors, but those around him on a daily basis have grown to admire him.

They know how much Pujols' body hurts, how difficult it is for him to simply suit up on a daily basis, and how defiant he is about continuing to play through pain.

"There's times that he's gone out there and played when he was severely hampered with what he needs to do," Scioscia said, "but even when he's banged up, he finds a way to do things. I think there's a lot of guys who would've been on the DL with what he has, no doubt about it, but he won't give in."

Weaver didn't have his best stuff while making his second start since coming off the DL, but he gave up only three runs (one earned) in six innings to match a very effective Scott Feldman, who essentially did to the Angels what four Astros starters -- Dallas Keuchel, Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles and Erik Bedard -- did before him, giving up only a Pujols sacrifice fly and a Howie Kendrick RBI single in six-plus innings.

With the Angels down one, and five outs away from dropping to nine games below .500 against yet another team they should beat, Pujols connected in a way he rarely has in this injury-plagued season.

"That's the swing we're used to seeing out of him," Weaver said.

"It got too much plate. It's as simple as that," Villanueva said, his Cubs losing their third straight game to fall to 23-33. "Pujols is a great hitter -- I don't really have to say that. If I make a better pitch there, maybe it's different results. With a hitter like that, you can't miss over the plate that much. He did what he's supposed to do, put it in the seats."

Pujols' lower-body pain, which has sapped most of his power, continues to be "up and down," as he put it. One day it's really bad, others it's simply manageable, but it's always there. The surgically repaired right knee doesn't hurt, per se, but it'll get swollen, irritated, because he puts so much pressure on his back side to compensate for that painful left foot.

"It's like somebody's sticking a knife and putting a lighter at the same time," Pujols said of his foot, his right knee underneath a mountain of ice and athletic tape.

"This game is tough when you're 100 percent; imagine when you're in pain. But I don't want to put that as an excuse, whether my numbers are there or not."

Around him, though, the noise continues, many wondering whether Pujols -- in Year 2 of 10 -- is already past his prime and far removed from even his last years in St. Louis. But it isn't that Pujols is old or regressing -- it's that he isn't healthy. He could stop all the doubts about his skills by doing what most players wouldn't even think twice about -- taking a step back, going on the DL and easing himself from the pain.

He can't bring himself to do it.

"I'm getting paid to play," Pujols said. "That's why I'm here. Obviously I want to be 100 percent so I can show our fans and people what I can do, but I don't think I need to show anybody because I've proven myself. I know I can play this game. Look at my track record.

"As long as I can play, even if I swing the bat and limp, I'm going to be out there fighting."

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