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ST. LOUIS -- Albert Pujols, who's eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list early next week, was optimistic Friday that he'd return from a strained side muscle much sooner than St. Louis officials had originally predicted.
St. Louis Cardinals
2006 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
53 25 65 52 .442 .308
The Cardinals slugger was on the field for drills at first base several hours before Friday night's game against the Rockies, contorting his body to get to balls bounced his way by third base coach Jose Oquendo. After the workout, last year's NL MVP said he felt surprisingly good.
"I'm pretty excited," Pujols said. And he said team medical personnel were "real excited, but I don't want to talk too quick until I get out there in the field and hopefully play for a week and I don't feel it at all."
Pujols was hoping to get clearance to take some batting practice on Saturday, the next step in the process.
"I still need to hit and I still need to do some things, and we'll see how I feel," Pujols said. "I can't wait until I start to get some hacks, and we'll go from there.
"I'm pretty sure I'll be OK. I've been working my butt off this last week," he said.
The encouraging development with Pujols came on a day when the Cardinals had to make do without another starter. Shortstop David Eckstein, the leadoff man, was scratched from the lineup with a minor concussion sustained breaking up a double play on Thursday.
"Something hit my head and it jarred me," Eckstein said. "I just haven't been able to shake the headache."
Pujols, who remains the major-league leader with 25 homers and 65 RBI, was hurt chasing a foul popup on June 3 and placed on the DL the following day. At that time the team estimated he would need four to six weeks to recover.
Pujols did not accompany the team on a six-game trip that ended on Thursday but has been running, lifting and doing cardio work daily for the last week.
Manager Tony La Russa remained cautious, and he was pessimistic about Pujols making a partial comeback as the DH when the Cardinals begin a stretch of six interleague games on Tuesday, starting with a three-game series at Chicago.
But he expects his star to be back before the All-Star break rather than afterward.
"You sit around and you stiffen up unless you ride the bike forever," La Russa said. "If he had a sore leg it would be different, but that's not what's sore. Based on how he's looking, I think he'll play before the break."
La Russa added that he didn't want Pujols back in the lineup until he was ready to finish the season with no repercussions.
"That should be our test: Don't play him until you expect that you're going to get him back for the rest of the season," La Russa said. "If there's any doubt about that, just keep resting him, don't push it."