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Richard Justice

Tireless Pujols reminding us of his prime

Free of power-sapping injuries, Angels superstar slugging as he always has

Tireless Pujols reminding us of his prime

NEW YORK -- Albert Pujols may be the most driven, obsessive player in baseball. To plenty of the people who know him best, this may be his ultimate legacy. All of the amazing things he has accomplished flow from a relentless work ethic.

Few players show up earlier or work harder. Few care more. Teammates tell stories of seeing him three hours before a game, not surprised that he's already drenched in sweat, having already hit the batting cage and weight room. He works so hard that some have wondered how he has anything left for the game.

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Talent? Of course, he has talent.

As much as anyone who has ever played. He has also done everything he can to maximize that talent.

"It's something I learned really young," Pujols said. "You don't take this game for granted. Being around veteran guys, guys that I respect a lot in my 14-year career, that's something you take from them. You have so many young players here that look up to you, and you want to make sure you don't change no matter what, whether you're struggling or having success."

From the moment former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa first laid eyes on Pujols, he was blown away by the combination of quickness and power. La Russa was also blown away by the instincts, by the ability to see the whole baseball field and understand the game.

Lance Berkman, a former teammate, marveled at the plate discipline.

"You almost never see Albert lunge at a pitch," Berkman said. "His swing is the same every time."

In that way, Pujols controlled plenty of at-bats the moment he stepped into the box. And again, there was the strength. He's a pure line-drive hitter, but he generates such power that his home runs tend to be towering, almost breathtaking shots.

And that's the Albert Pujols we're seeing this season.

That Albert Pujols is back.

If he's not again the best, most feared offensive player in the game, he's certainly in the conversation. He's also one of the best things about this new baseball season. To see a guy who has worked so hard and who has struggled so much with injuries for two years, to see that guy rewarded is about as good as it gets.

There have been times these last two seasons when it was easy to wonder if we'd ever see that Albert Pujols again.

"The last couple of years were tough, but it wasn't because there was something wrong with my swing," Pujols said. "Physically, I wasn't right. You guys saw that. I can't hide it. It was really tough. I know what I can do in this game when I'm healthy. I just pray to God I can continue to stay healthy."

To remind you how good Pujols was in St. Louis: In 11 seasons, he averaged 40 home runs and 121 RBIs. He was voted the National League Most Valuable Player three times and finished second four times.

When the Angels signed him to a 10-year, $240 million contract in December 2011, there was little doubt they'd snagged the best player on Earth.

Bad stuff began to happen. First, there was a right knee issue that slowed him in that first season with the Angels. And last season was worse. The knee, which had been surgically repaired, probably never completely healed.

Then his left foot broke down with plantar fasciitis. Pujols tried to play through the pain, even though it was painful to watch him attempt to run. He never offered excuses and didn't like it when others offered them for him.

But he was never the Albert Pujols we'd seen during those 11 seasons with the Cardinals. Looking back on it, maybe the best thing that happened to Pujols last season was that his season ended on July 26, after 99 games.

When doctors discovered a tear of the plantar fascia, that was that. He then had six full months of rest and rehabilitation. When he showed up to begin his third season with the Angels, he was a different Albert Pujols.

"It's night and day," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

Pujols is 34 and beginning his 15th big league season, so he's never going to be the frisky young kid he once was. But he's again a great player, a powerful player, a player who makes you stop and watch his every at-bat.

"It feels good to feel healthy, which I haven't been the last couple of years," Pujols said. "It's still a long season, and as long as I can contribute any way I can, that's what it's all about."

Scioscia summed it up bluntly, saying, "This guy is as good as anybody that's ever been in the batter's box."

This week has been a good one for Pujols because in his becoming the 26th member of the 500-home run club on Tuesday night in Washington, he has refocused the spotlight on his greatness.

He's methodically climbing the leaderboards, his name mixed with the all-time greats -- seventh in slugging percentage, 35th in doubles, 36th in on-base percentage, 49th in RBIs and 51st in total bases.

"At the end of my career, maybe I'll look back and see what kind of numbers I've put up in this game," Pujols said. "I'm still active and don't want to get caught up in too many numbers. This game is already tough enough, and if you bring a distraction into your head, it takes away from what you're supposed to do out there, which is win games and help your teammates."

Pujols hit his 501st home run on Friday night at Yankee Stadium in a 13-1 Angels victory, and like a lot of the others, it was a moon-ball shot to left field, the deepest part of the park.

Once more -- just like the old days -- his name is dotted around the Major League leaderboards -- first in home runs (nine), fourth in RBIs (21) and seventh in on-base-plus slugging (1.009).

If he's in your neighborhood, do yourself a favor and go see Pujols. There's never going to be a conversation about baseball's best hitters without mentioning him. Here's a guy you can tell your grandkids about.

Welcome back, Albert.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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