ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Albert Pujols is trying to protect his injured right hamstring by playing conservatively during the NL championship series. It hasn't been easy.

``I'm fine, I'm dealing with it,'' Pujols told The Associated Press before Game 5 on Tuesday night. ``But when I cross that line I don't want to make it a big deal, you know what I mean?

``I'm just going to be careful, and that's what's tough.''

Manager Tony La Russa said Pujols, the NL MVP last year and a strong candidate for the award again this season, is under orders to run the bases under control.

The injury also has affected his power stroke. He was 4-for-14 in the first four games of the series with one double and no RBIs after hitting .331 in the regular season with 49 homers and 137 RBIs.

Mets pitching has had something to do with his lack of numbers, allowing the slugger only one at-bat with a runner on base and none with runners in scoring position in the first four games.

La Russa said he's more concerned about crucial, late-game situations.

``He's very smart,'' La Russa said. ``The game sometimes makes it hard and it's harder late, and that's what you've really got to worry about, I think.''

When Pujols was starting in left field in 2003, he avoided making full-out throws that could have blown out a sprained right elbow. La Russa had shortstop Edgar Renteria sprint to the outfield so Pujols could flip the ball to him, and center fielder Jim Edmonds yelled constant reminders.

The hamstring has bothered him at various points this season.

Pujols said running at less than full speed is harder to accomplish than backing off throws, along with the general difficulty of playing under control in the postseason. He wanted to run out a grounder to third ending the seventh inning of a 12-5 loss in Game 4 to set an example for his teammates that there was no quit in him.

``Sometimes you hit a ball in the gap and you want to push for a double or a triple,'' Pujols said. ``The other day, that ground ball to third base I wanted to go hard and show those guys we're still alive.

``But I couldn't do it because when I tried to push off in the batting box I felt it and had to back off.''

Against his instincts, he dutifully trotted to first.

``I was just like, just relax and be ready for Game 5,'' Pujols said. ``I'll be all right.''

Pujols also revved it up on Scott Spiezio's two-run triple in the first inning of Game 3, scoring easily from first with no problems.

La Russa thought Tuesday night's rainout might have helped Pujols, but said at best he'd be only a ``shade better.''

But he again discussed the possibility of pulling his star for a pinch runner in the ninth inning of a game hanging in the balance. La Russa said Pujols' present injury is more serious than problems earlier in the year.

``If he's on first base with two outs, I don't know if I'd do it,'' La Russa said. ``You've just got to try to use good judgment.''