Teams again giving Pujols free passes

Already the major league single-season record-holder for intentional walks (44) to a righthanded batter, Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols is on pace to equal or likely surpass last year’s total this season, unless cleanup man Matt Holliday can “make them pay,” as the baseball bromide goes.

Pujols was walked intentionally 15 times in the Cardinals’ first 49 games. Nine of those came in front of Holliday, who was signed at considerable expense to protect Pujols after the former had a lights-out two months for the Cardinals following his acquisition from Oakland last year.

In those nine at-bats following a very free pass to Pujols, Holliday had only one hit, a two-run single. The other at-bats resulted in two strikeouts and six groundouts, one of them for a double play. Colby Rasmus, hitting behind Pujols, actually came through on both occasions Pujols was walked intentionally ahead of him, tripling in two runs and singling another time. Two of the other four intentional walks Pujols was issued came in the 20-inning loss to the New York Mets on April 17 when a pitcher wound up hitting behind Pujols and the other two came when David Freese (groundout, walk) was hitting behind Pujols.

But the relative disdain with which Holliday is being treated has been almost astonishing. Holliday has a .316 lifetime average, seventh among active players and 71st all time among players with more than 3,000 plate appearances.

This basically started last October in the divisional playoff round when Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre intentionally passed Pujols three times in the three-game series, with Holliday striking out with the bases loaded, grounding out and being hit by a pitch on those three occasions.

But Holliday has “made them pay” before. In the last two months of the 2009 regular season when Pujols was hitting third and Holliday fourth, Pujols was passed nine times intentionally in front of Holliday and the latter reached base six times with a run-scoring single, a two-run double, a three-run home run, two walks and a hit by pitch.

Since the end of last regular season, though, Holliday is one for 11 — a two-run single — after an intentional pass to Pujols.

NEWS ITEM: The Philadelphia Phillies, two-time defending National League champions, lost seven of nine games in a recent stretch and their offensive troubles were worse than those of the Cardinals.

HUMMEL’S TAKE: Even the best of hitting teams — and there is little question that the Phillies have the deepest lineup in the league — can be shut down. In their seven losses, the Phillies, missing catalyst Jimmy Rollins, were shut out four times, including three in a row by the New York Mets, and held to one run on another occasion. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr., was heard by reporters to say at one point that the “hitting stinks right now. They’re paid not to stink.”

It often has been said that a team facing a knuckleball pitcher can go into a slump for a week. Well, after going four years without facing a knuckleball pitcher, the Phillies faced two in three days — and were shut out by both of them. Boston’s Tim Wakefield blanked the Phils for eight innings and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets zeroed them for six innings.

When the Mets blanked the Phillies in three straight games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, it marked the first time the Phils had played the Mets since bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was caught with binoculars in the bullpen in Colorado, apparently stealing signs. Phils manager Charlie Manuel accused the Mets of doing the same thing at Citi Field, but quickly backtracked during the recent series. “That was just something I said that was stupid,” Manuel told Philadelphia reporters. “Somebody said something dumb to me and I said something dumb back. … It wasn’t very smart.”

After the Phillies became the first major league team to be blanked three games in a row since the 2007 Dodgers, Manuel doggedly told reporters, “We’re going to hit. … That’s all I can say. Right now we’re not hitting the ball, and the balls that we’re hitting are getting caught. We’re going to come out of it. We can hit. …

“That’s all I’ve got to tell you. When? I don’t know. If I had my way we would have come out of it tonight. Also if I had my way we never would’ve gotten into the little rut we’re in right now.”

The Phillies hadn’t been blanked three times in a row since 1983. They went to the World Series that year.

NEWS ITEM: The Milwaukee Brewers, probably the major leagues’ most disappointing team to date, dipped 10 games under .500 when they were blanked by Houston on Wednesday.

HUMMEL’S TAKE: It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to suggest that manager Ken Macha might beat Baltimore’s Dave Trembley in being the second manager fired this season (Trey Hillman of Kansas City was the first). Macha received the dreaded “vote of confidence” from team owner Mark Attanasio last weekend but told Milwaukee reporters, “(Attanasio’s comments) didn’t really matter because all the negativism was coming out before. I told you, I go about my job the same way all the time, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.

“I’ve had a lot of success doing it this way (in Oakland). If you run a business, and you run your business successfully, and all of a sudden you get a little bit of a downturn, what do you do? Panic and change everything you’re doing, or continue the course?

“That’s what we’re doing. We come out here every day and get these players ready to play.”

NEWS ITEM: Colorado righthander Ubaldo Jimenez has joined Juan Marichal as the only pitchers since expansion in 1961 to have nine wins and an earned run average below 1.00 after a pitcher’s first 10 starts of the season. Jimenez is 9-1 with a 0.88 ERA, his only loss coming at Los Angeles when he allowed one run in seven innings. Marichal was 9-0 with a 0.80 ERA in 1966 with the San Francisco Giants, finishing 25-6 with 2.23 ERA.

“It’s not easy to have an ERA like that young man has this late into the season,” Rockies manager Jim Tracy told Colorado reporters last week. “I’ve heard the term microscopic used and I think it applies … he’s the best pitcher in the game.”

HUMMEL’S TAKE: We may find out Monday. In a must-see TV event, Jimenez will face two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum of the Giants, a matchup to which Jimenez has been looking forward:

“Yeah, why not?” he said. “I always want to be there for a big game.”

Incidentally, Marichal’s tremendous 1966 season was not nearly good enough to win the Cy Young Award, the last time a single Cy Young Award encompassed pitchers in both leagues. Los Angeles lefthander Sandy Koufax received all 20 first-place votes that year by compiling a 27-9 mark with a 1.73 earned run average and 27 complete games in the last season he pitched before his arthritic left elbow wouldn’t let him continue.

NEWS ITEM: Cardinals righthander Kyle Lohse underwent surgery Friday to deal with “exertional compartment syndrome” in his right forearm, an on-going issue for him in the last two seasons.

HUMMEL’S TAKE: It is not known how long Lohse will be sidelined, but he is not the first pitcher to have this surgery in recent years. Former San Francisco lefthander Noah Lowry, who had enjoyed 14- and 13-win seasons, had the surgery in the spring of 2008. He hasn’t pitched since, having been released by the Giants after the 2009 season.

Rick Hummel/St. Louis Post-Dispatch