When Albert Pujols’ bat caught fire in early August, and it looked like the St. Louis Cardinals slugger would make an incredible 11-hour run to 700 homers, Mark McGwire began tracking his longtime teammate through the MLB app and tune in as. Pujol’s plate appearance was pretty much as he could.
“His bat, he looks like he’s 25 again,” McGwire said of the 42-year-old Pujols, who was a Cardinals rookie when McGwire hit the last of his 583 career homers in a St. Louis uniform. Louis in 2001. “This guy is a born hitter.”
But it wasn’t until McGwire returned to Busch Stadium for Cardinals Hall of Famer Matt Holliday’s induction ceremony on Aug. 27 that he truly understood — literally, not figuratively — how Pujols, in his 22nd and major league season final, to capture again. the thunder in its swing.
“When I saw Albert, I gave him a hug, and he’s like, you know when you hug someone, and you just go, ‘Man, I don’t want to mess with the guy that?’ ” McGwire said in a phone interview. “When you hug Albert, you go, ‘I’m not going to mess with him because he’s strong as s—.’ He hasn’t lost any strength.”
Dodgers fans will get a closer look at what McGwire and much of baseball has done over the past two months when Pujols and the National League-leading Cardinals begin a three-game series in Chavez Ravine on Friday night.
Pujols hit the 698th homer of his career, a two-run, run-scoring shot that traveled 427 feet to left field in a win over the Cincinnati Reds in St. Louis last Friday night.
Pujols didn’t hit a homer in this week’s three-game series against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park, but with two more balls, he’ll join Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) as the one. players in major league history to hit 700 home runs.
As much as Cardinals fans would love to beat No. 700 in St. Louis, where Pujols won three NL most valuable player awards and led the Cardinals to World Series titles in 2006 and 2011, Dodger Stadium would provide a fitting backdrop for the milestone. shot.
It was here that Pujols revived a career that many thought was over when the Angels released him in early May 2021 after Pujols had zero wins during his 10-year, $240 million contract and when his flagship 2022 season got a boost. shot.
Pujols was the most feared right-handed hitter in baseball during the first 11 years of his Hall-of-Fame career in St. Louis. Louis, where he hit .328 with a 1.037 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 445 homers and 1,329 RBIs and was nicknamed “the Machine” for his metric production.
Although he hit his 500th and 600th homers and collected his 3,000th hit and 2,000th RBI for the Angels, several lower-body injuries and age overwhelmed the first man’s prodigious power, and his production plummeted. He hit .256 with a .758 OPS and averaged 24 homers and 85 RBI in nine full seasons in Anaheim.
Less than a week after his release, Pujols, then 41 and with 667 career homers, signed with the Dodgers. The move to a World Series contender — even in a smaller role — seemed to “rekindle his love for the game,” McGwire said. “He put the fire in there again.”
Pujols hit .254 with a .759 OPS, 12 homers and 38 RBI in 85 games for the Dodgers, including a .953 OPS against lefties, and enjoyed his role as a mentor to his new teammates, who gave ” Tio Albert” affectionately. and asked for a bear hug in the dugout.
“I saw a different Albert last year when he came here,” said Dodgers third base coach Dino Ebel, the Angels’ coach from 2006 to 2018. “I know things didn’t turn out the way he wanted with the Angels, but when he got here, he was happy. It was another man.
“He knew his role. He accepted his role. The team bought into it. He bought into the system, the culture. He fits right in, and I think he made a difference in Albert and the way his career is ending up now.”
Pujols has received regular text messages and FaceTime calls from former Dodgers teammates offering encouragement during his pursuit of 700 and is looking forward to reconnecting with them this weekend.
“It was great,” Pujols said of his Dodgers era. “It was really special playing there for five months and the energy of the fans and the way the organization treated me with respect and honor. And to be back in the playoffs … that place was electric. I think that’s what really helped me come back and play for another year.”
When Pujols signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal to return to St. Louis last March, the Cardinals considered it a goodwill gesture, so the local icon could get a few at-bats against left-handed fields and enjoy a safe outing with fellow Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright , 41, and Yadier Molina, 40.
Relegated to the role of platoon hitter and pinch hitter, Pujols appeared to be clubbing the 21 homers he needed for 700. Age and injuries took a toll. Pujols had hit more than 21 homers once in the previous five seasons.
His fast start to 2022 did not inspire much hope. Pujols had a season-low .189 average, .601 OPS, four homers and 17 RBI in his first 43 games – and the team’s first 87 games – through July 4.
But a legacy selection for the July 19 All-Star Game and a surprising run to the semifinals of the home run at Derby Stadium, where his fellow All-Stars embraced him in a group hug during the derby, Pujols appeared to be – renewal.
Pujols warmed up in late July and retired in early August. In 38 games since August 10, Pujols has hit .313 (35 for 112) with a 1.071 OPS, 12 homers – the third-most in baseball in that span – and 29 RBIs to push his season average (.261) and OPS (.845) to a high he hadn’t seen since 2012, when he hit .285 with an .859 OPS, 30 homers and 105 RBI in his first year with the Angels.
“It was a good story for him to go back to St. Louis, and I don’t think anybody had any expectations,” Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “And then he was so energetic at the All-Star Game. It was so cool to see him in his youth and doing the derby and all that stuff. There was a bit of a spark to it.”
Pujols has always been pressed left-handed — he has a career .301 average and .954 OPS and is hitting .352 with a 1.154 OPS against them this season — but he’s hitting righties just as well that “it’s hard to take his bat. out of the lineup,” Cardinals bench coach Skip Schummaker said.
Schumaker, a former utility man who played with Pujols from 2005-2012, said the origins of Pujols’ home run barrage run deeper than the derby. A 102.5-mph lineout to left field against Braves left-hander Will Smith in the seventh inning of a July 7 game in Atlanta may have been the spark.
“He went back to the dugout and said, ‘Man, I think I got something,'” Schumaker said. “He stopped moving the way he loads his hands, got shorter to the ball, and something clicked to where he felt like he was back in the 2005-2010 era. I think he had to try it in the home run derby.”
Pujols’ OPS of 1.224 in August was the best in baseball among players with 65 or more plate appearances. His .803 slugging percentage that month marked just the third time in his career he’s hit .800 or better in a calendar month.
He hit five homers in a five-game stretch from August 14-20, marching toward 700 in a sprint and fueling push to push his team from a half-game behind Milwaukee in the NL Central at the All-Star break to 7 1/ 2 – game lead.
“I don’t know how many of those games in August we would have won without him, honestly,” Wainwright said. “It’s crazy to say that because the No. 1 MVP candidate. 1 of us [Paul Goldschmidt] and MVP candidate No. 2 [Nolan Arenado] on our team, and Albert carried us. He was one of, if not the, biggest reason why we won our division.”
Pujols, who is six years older than first-year Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, initially shrugged off a question about his power surge in the second half.
“Power surge? OK, I guess I had no power, so I had to look for some,” Pujols said during the Padres series. “Nothing really [changed]. I carried the swing I had in spring training into the season knowing if I trust my process, as I always have for 23 years as a professional, sooner or later it will come around.
“Why it took so long, I don’t know. I think God has ways of changing things. But for me, I just wanted to repeat the same swing that I’ve been doing all my life.”
Pujols’ 700-run streak is overshadowed by New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge’s Triple Crown and builds on what may be the greatest single-season offensive performance in baseball history, but that in no way diminishes Pujols’ accomplishments. ‘.
There were about 22,800 major league players, but only three in the exclusive Club 700 baseball, Pujols knock on the door, no matter how much he downplay the popularity.
“I don’t chase numbers – I didn’t chase 100 [homers], and I have 698 of them,” Pujols said. “It’s something else I’m chasing [World Series] ring for the City of St. Louis and our fans. That’s why I signed back this year.”
The Cardinals have 11 games remaining, their last six against the Pittsburgh Pirates. If Pujols ends the season stranded at 698 or 699 homers, there will be no attempt to reach 700 in 2023.
Despite second-half numbers that Wainwright admits are surprising for a 42-year-old,” the Machine will close this winter. Pujols said in March that this would be his last season, and he reiterated this week that his plans have not changed.
“You’ve got to go with your heart, and I think that’s why I said it in spring training, because I knew something like this was going to happen, and if I finish with a good year or if I’m successful, it was going to change mine. mind,” Pujols said.
“But when I say something, I will do it. So I’m going to retire after the World Series, and I’m going to enjoy my life, my career, my family and everything I’ve accomplished in this game.”