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Hendry-Pujols hug causes stir before Cubs loss to Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols doubles against Chicago Cubs during sixth inning baseball game Tuesday May 10 2011 Chicago. (AP

St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols doubles against the Chicago Cubs during the sixth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 10, 2011, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Jim Prisching)

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Updated: August 25, 2011 12:31AM

Nearly six weeks into this thing, and the answer to all the Cubs’ clutch-hitting and singles-hitting problems finally reared up for all to see at Wrigley Field.

And then he gave general manager Jim Hendry a big hug.

If Albert Pujols were a snake, instead of merely a pending free agent, he might have bitten the Cubs on the behind — and then a few hours later he did anyway when he led off the eighth with his third of four hits Tuesday night and scored the go-ahead run in the St. Louis Cardinals’ 6-4 win over the Cubs.

But it was that hug, and subsequent handshake with Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, near the batting cage before the game that figured to most capture the attention of North Side baseball fans — a moment made for YouTube, Twitpic or Dimwit, depending on your speculation vehicle of choice.

‘‘We’ve been friends for a long time. I’m not going to treat Albert any different [now], and same with him,’’ said Hendry, laughing at the instant Chicago and St. Louis media attention he got for the hug and brief conversation. ‘‘We don’t talk about what’s going to happen. It’s always the same thing: ‘How’s your son?’ ‘How’s your kid?’ ’’

‘‘I’m a little different. I’ve always gotten along with players.’’

He doesn’t always hug them.

‘‘He hugged me first,’’ Hendry said, smiling. ‘‘[And he’s a lot bigger and stronger than I am.’’

So inquiring minds draw another blank. What else is new?

That doesn’t mean the Albert-to-Chicago speculation — daydreaming? — will disappear anytime soon.

Not with 14 more games between these rivals this season. Not after watching a 13-hit attack against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter fail to produce so much as an extra-base hit as the Cubs fell to 1-3 during this measuring-stick homestand.

Not with as much as $45 million falling off the Cubs’ payroll books at the end of the season.

And not as long as the three-time MVP continues unsigned through his lame-duck season while the Cubs thirst for a middle-of-the-order monster they haven’t had since Derrek Lee was competing for MVPs.

Asked before the game what level of importance he placed on this series against first-place St. Louis, Cubs manager Mike Quade said, ‘‘I can’t put a number on it, but it’ll be another way for us to measure where we’re at.

‘‘It’s more important to me to find out where we’re at with ourselves, particularly, when it comes to the offense. This is a pretty good [weather] day to see if we can’t do that. As it warms up, I expect the bats to do a better job. We’ll find out.’’

Maybe today or Thursday. Not Tuesday, when Pujols alone hit for as many total bases as the Cubs’ 3-4-5 hitters combined.

Of course, success at Wrigley is nothing new to Pujols, whose home runs (25) and RBI (64) here are exceeded among road ballparks only by those at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park.

On this night, Pujols may even have overshadowed the marquee pitching matchup of Carlos Zambrano and Carpenter — especially after 11 hitters reached base in the first inning.

Pujols stuck by his preseason vow of not talking about his contract status or looming free agency when asked about it Tuesday. And the consensus opinion in the game seems to be that Pujols — who entered Tuesday hitting just .248 but with seven homers — eventually will re-sign with the only team he has known.

But not everybody seems so sure. And, clearly, the relationship exists as a starting point if the Cardinals don’t lock up Pujols before next fall.

‘‘I never thought I’d leave Chicago, either,’’ Cards shortstop Ryan Theriot, the former Cub, said. ‘‘It’s a business. Things happen. You see guys go and play for their rival team all the time.’’

Maybe just one more time, as far as the Cubs are concerned.

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