Albert PujolsST. LOUIS – As evenly matched as the Cardinals and Cubs appear to be so far this season, each game between the two is all the more crucial and key in either team’s bid for a National League Central Division title.

It was hardly surprising that Friday’s series opener in St. Louis came down to a key hit and a bit of aggressive base running.

Fans in St. Louis have criticized Albert Pujols for his demeanor on the base paths this season, citing poor decision making and a pretentious attitude when it comes to some of the moves he has made this year.

Most of the negative outlook has been centered on a supposed laziness, but it becomes a tired argument when he continuously steps up to help the Cardinals win games.

The arguments frankly hold no validity when it comes to comparing Pujols to other players. Time after time, he has proven a relentless determination to do things the right way and to be the very best at what he does – and he is steadily climbing the ladder in a number of categories.

Tony La Russa tagged his first baseman as the best player he has ever managed and the mere mentioning of his name to other players in the game sparks either a smile from those on his side, or a look of fear from those in the other dugout, perhaps wishing they didn’t have to face him.

Players like Chicago’s Milton Bradley and Los Angeles’ Manny Ramirez are more worthy of complaints of bad attitudes and laziness than Pujols and make supporters like ESPN’s Buster Olney all the more credible in claiming Pujols to be as close to perfect a baseball player as he has seen.

Those protesting his efforts had a hole punched in their argument on Friday when Pujols recorded his team-leading third stolen base of the season in the bottom of the eighth. He put himself in scoring position and set up Ryan Ludwick’s game-winning RBI single.

The win tied the season series with the Cubs at two games each, surely putting smiles on the faces of everyone in Cardinal Nation.

But few people likely smiled wider when Pujols crossed the plate than Skip Schumaker.

There’s no question that Schumaker has made huge strides in his conversion from outfielder to starting second baseman. He made a highlight reel catch in the fourth inning, robbing Alfonso Soriano of a base hit, but also robbed Adam Wainwright of his third win when he dropped what should have been a routine fly ball in left field.

Once the play was complete, Schumaker promptly dropped his head in disgust realizing his error could have possibly cost St. Louis the game. There was plenty of game remaining and the Cardinals obviously rebounded from the mistake.

Really, though, how could a baseball fan not appreciate Schumaker’s constant hustle and relentless attitude in trying to do everything possible to help his team win? His only downfall is being too hard on himself. Unless La Russa toys too much with the lineup this weekend, Schumaker should have plenty of opportunity to redeem himself.

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