HOUSTON • It wasn't exactly 25 cabs for 25 players after the Cardinals' 4-2 win Sunday over the Houston Astros, but there were close to 20 destinations.
With most players ticketed for a three-day layover at home, first baseman Albert Pujols concluded a strange but productive first half by taking the team's four other All-Stars to Anaheim, Calif., along with him on a private charter. Like many high-profile athletes, Pujols purchases blocks of time. Left fielder Matt Holliday, catcher Yadier Molina and pitchers Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter were glad to accept.
"Very nice," said Wainwright, on his way to his first midsummer exhibition. "I mean ... very nice."
Tuesday's All-Star appearance will be Pujols' ninth in 10 seasons but will not include participation in tonight's elongated Home Run Derby. (Holliday will participate.) Pujols enters the break batting .308 with 21 home runs and 64 RBIs. The production numbers, enhanced by three extra-base hits in the series against the Astros, approximate his average 24 home runs and 69 RBIs at the midpoint of his three MVP seasons. Pujols' .992 on-base-plus-slugging percentage lags the 1.017, 1.074 and 1.179 first-half figures from his MVP runs. His OPS still ranks second in the National League to Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto.
"I want (the numbers) to be whatever it takes to help my team win," said Pujols, who previously has conceded frustration over the stop-and-start nature of his season. "It's not about me. It's about winning and what it takes to win. There have been so many times I've let my team down. But there have been a lot of other times that I've produced. It's part of the game."
Manager Tony La Russa on Sunday underscored the significance of Pujols' production within a season that has frequently focused attention on the Cardinals' offensive shortcomings.
Still, a combination of typical production numbers but a batting average lagging Pujols'.334 career figure entering the season has invited questions about him becoming increasingly power-happy.
La Russa offered a diplomatic response, not a denial.
"Albert is the only one who can answer that. We play in some ballparks when you're really strong, you think if you get it in the air, you're going to do something productive," La Russa said. "I don't know if he did that at all. But it's such a human nature thing, they all do it. He's got a great discipline about realizing the higher above .300 he is, the more he does to help us. The home runs are going to be there along with runs and RBI."
McGwire on Bagwell
The Astros closed the first half Sunday morning by announcing the hiring of iconic first baseman Jeff Bagwell to replace hitting coach Sean Berry.
Bagwell, 42, retired during the 2005 season after amassing 449 home runs with 1,529 RBIs. He had served as part of the team's broadcast crew before accepting the job. Bagwell, like Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire, has never served in the capacity at any level before joining the major-league staff. However, McGwire noted Bagwell, unlike him, had served as a spring training guest instructor before his hire.
McGwire had no problem offering his endorsement.
"I think he'll be great," McGwire said. "It's actually good to work with guys at this level. That's a very young team. If anything, this is probably good timing. There's no question he knows all those guys over there. Now he gets to spend a half-season with them and get that much more exposure. To me, it works."
Jon Jay's Excellent Adventure
Rooke outfielder Jon Jay made his 11th start for the Cardinals on Sunday. And for the 11th game as a starter he hit safely.
Jay went about it differently this time, with a bunt single to open the Cardinals' three-run fourth inning. Jay is hitting .432 (19 for 44) as a starter. Jay also has constructed an active 11-game hit streak, the longest current one in the National League and enough to tie Pujols for the longest this season by a Cardinal.
"You can tell he understands the game very well for a young player," La Russa said. "He does what the situation demands. He's aggressive and he's intelligent. That's a good combination for any player. He's been very impressive."
The bunt single was the first of its kind by a Cardinal since Julio Lugo did so last Sept. 3 in Milwaukee.
"I know it's a game. I've got to have fun, fun with a reason," said Jay, the Cardinals' second-round selection of the 2006 draft. "I'm more of a happy-go-lucky guy. I'm not going to let things bother me. I'm not going to get too high and not going to get too low. I'm just playing the game."
Jay's surge has coincided with a decrease in playing time for Randy Winn, who is in a two-for-28 skid since June 24 and has made only one start since June 29. Winn was 11 for 28 in his first 12 games after joining the Cardinals.
Colby Rasmus' pinch single left him three for six in the role this season. La Russa voiced strong optimism that Rasmus' right hamstring will allow his return to center field after the break. On Sunday, La Russa dispatched pitcher Jaime Garcia to pinch run for Rasmus. ...… Holliday finished the first half with five home runs in the last six games. His 16 home runs tie a career high before the All-Star break. Sunday marked his fifth three-RBI game this season; he managed seven RBIs in the weekend series, leaving him at 51 for the half. Pujols leads the NL with 29 two-out RBIs. Holliday ranks second with 28. ... Closer Ryan Franklin enters the break leading the NL in save efficiency (94.1 percent), having converted 16 of 17 chances. ... The Toronto Blue Jays were among the teams that dispatched a scout to the Cards-Astros series. The Jays, possibly in a sell mode as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, are believed willing to deal shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who leads AL shortstops with 17 home runs and 50 RBIs. The Jays, who are rebuilding around a young pitching staff, have had previous interest in the defensively superior Brendan Ryan. ... The Cardinals will hold a "very optional" workout Wednesday at Busch Stadium.