Pujols says he could avoid surgery for rest of career

JUPITER, Fla. -- Albert Pujols is confident he can make it through another season, and maybe even the rest of his career, without needing reconstructive surgery on the elbow that's hampered him off and on since 2003.

The St. Louis Cardinals will do their part to keep their star in the lineup with plenty of rest. They're easing him into the season, too. Pujols played in his 10th spring game on Wednesday, with five games off.

"I can go the year and I don't have to be concerned about it because I took enough rest," Pujols said. "The last couple of years I haven't taken enough rest.

"It's just something I need to play by ear, and so far it feels good."

Pujols first injured his elbow in 2003, when he was an outfielder and stayed in the lineup by promising manager Tony La Russa he would not cut loose on throws. He got around the problem then by flipping the ball to shortstop Edgar Renteria in a relay system that helped to avoid blowing out a strained ligament.

The risk is probably greater now, several years of wear and tear down the road.

Team physician Dr. George Paletta provided details of Pujols' injury for the first time last week, disclosing that the superstar has a high-grade tear of the ulnar collateral ligament along with bone spurs, inflammation and arthritis in the joint. At some point, Paletta said, surgery that would sideline Pujols for an estimated eight months may be required.

But not yet.

Pujols remains the big bat in the Cardinals' lineup, hammering his fourth homer in only 27 spring at-bats on Wednesday off the Marlins' Gaby Hernandez. He's batting .370.

"I'm seeing the ball really good and I feel real good at the plate," Pujols said. "Obviously, it's the hard work I put in before the game and on my days off."

When Paletta's diagnosis became news last week, Pujols was shocked when friends called to ask if he was OK. He briefly wondered if the Cardinals were withholding information from him.

His conclusion: slow news day.

"I guess there weren't enough highlights," he said. "You know how it is, sometimes people when they want to make the story they do whatever they want."

Even so, La Russa worries that Pujols could blow out the elbow with one off-balance swing.

"I only know what the doctors say," La Russa said. "He's played seasons where he didn't take that swing. He has an issue in there and if something crazy happens, it may pop up. Go after a pitch and all of a sudden something funny happens, your foot slips, whatever."

Pujols has altered his weightlifting program to put less stress on the elbow, a switch that has not made a dent in his power. He vows not to get cheated at the plate.

"I'm taking the same swings I've always taken, with the same approach and the same energy," Pujols said. "Injuries, that's something you can't control, and if it's going to happen it's going to happen."

Pujols is fond of saying that perhaps a month into the season, no one is truly healthy.

"You play 162 games and you travel every three days, you sleep in different beds every three days, and you play night games and day games and it's tough," he said. "Your body needs to get used to all that and people don't understand that and say 'Oh, you can't stay healthy.'

"I've said before, if there's anybody in this game that plays 100 percent healthy the whole year, he's lying. My mind tells me that I'm 100 percent but my body doesn't, and that's the way it is."