When the bat of Albert Pujols caught fireplace in early August, and it appeared the St. Louis Cardinals slugger would make an unlikely Eleventh-hour run to 700 homers, Mark McGwire started monitoring his long-ago teammate by the MLB app and tuning into as many Pujols plate appearances as he may.
“His at-bats, he seems to be like he is 25 once more,” McGwire mentioned of the 42-year-old Pujols, who was a Cardinals rookie when McGwire hit the final of his 583 profession homers in a St. Louis uniform in 2001. This man is a born hitter.”
However it wasn’t till McGwire returned to Busch Stadium for Matt Holliday’s Cardinals Corridor-of-Fame induction ceremony on Aug. 27 that he really grasped — actually, not figuratively — how Pujols, in his twenty second and closing huge league season, has recaptured the thunder in his swing.
“Once I noticed Albert, I gave him a hug, and it is like, whenever you hug somebody, and also you simply go, ‘Oh man, I do not wish to mess with that man?’ McGwire mentioned in a telephone interview. “If you hug Albert, you go, ‘I am not gonna mess with him as a result of he is robust as s—.’ He hasn’t misplaced any power.”
Dodgers followers will get an up-close take a look at what McGwire and far of baseball has marveled at for the previous two months when Pujols and the Nationwide League-leading Cardinals start a three-game collection in Chavez Ravine on Friday night time.
Pujols hit the 698th homer of his profession, a two-run, score-tying shot that traveled 427 ft to left discipline in a win over the Cincinnati Reds in St. Louis final Friday night time.
Pujols didn’t homer on this week’s three-game collection in opposition to the San Diego Padres in Petco Park, however with two extra lengthy balls, he’ll be a part of Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) as the one gamers in main league historical past to hit 700 dwelling runs.
As a lot as Cardinals followers would love for No. 700 to be hit in St. Louis, the place Pujols received three NL Most worthy participant awards and led the Cardinals to World Collection titles in 2006 and 2011, Dodger Stadium would offer a becoming backdrop for the milestone shot.
It was right here that Pujols revitalized a profession many thought was over when the Angels launched him in early Could 2021 after Pujols produced zero playoff wins over the course of his 10-year, $240-million contract, and the place his flagging 2022 season obtained a booster. shot.
Pujols was baseball’s most-feared right-handed hitter within the first 11 years of his Corridor-of-Fame profession in St. Louis, the place he hit .328 with a 1,037 on-base-plus-slugging share, 445 homers and 1,329 RBIs and was nicknamed “the Machine” due to his metronome-like manufacturing.
Although he hit his five hundredth and 600th homers and picked up his 3,000th hit and a pair of,000th RBI for the Angels, a number of lower-body accidents and age sapped the primary baseman of his prodigious energy, and his manufacturing plummeted. He hit .256 with a .758 OPS and averaged 24 homers and 85 RBIs in 9 full seasons in Anaheim.
Lower than every week after he was launched, Pujols, then 41 and with 667 profession homers, signed with the Dodgers. The transfer to a World Collection contender — even in a lesser position — appeared to “rekindle his love for the sport,” McGwire mentioned. “It obtained the fireplace in him once more.”
Pujols hit .254 with a .759 OPS, 12 homers and 38 RBIs in 85 video games for the Dodgers, together with a .953 OPS in opposition to lefties, and relished his position as a mentor to his new teammates, who affectionately referred to as him “Uncle Albert” and sought his bear hugs within the dugout.
“I noticed a distinct Albert final 12 months when he obtained right here,” mentioned Dodgers third-base coach Dino Ebel, an Angels coach from 2006 to 2018. “I do know issues did not prove the way in which he wished with the Angels, however when he obtained right here, he was pleased. He was a distinct man.
“He knew his position. I’ve accepted his position from him. The workforce purchased in on him. He purchased in on the system, the tradition. He match proper in, and I believe it simply made a distinction in Albert and the way in which he is ending his profession now.”
Pujols has obtained common textual content messages and FaceTime calls from former Dodgers teammates providing encouragement throughout his pursuit of 700 and is trying ahead to reconnecting with them this weekend.
“It was superior,” Pujols mentioned of his Dodgers stint. “Enjoying there for 5 months and the power of the followers and the way the group handled me with respect and honor, that was actually particular. And to be again within the playoffs … that place was electrical. I believe that is what actually helped me come again and play one other 12 months.”
When Pujols signed a one-year, $2.5-million deal to return to St. Louis final March, it was thought of one thing of a goodwill gesture by the Cardinals, so the native icon may get just a few at-bats in opposition to left-handed pitchers and revel in a farewell tour with fellow Cardinals veterans Adam Wainwright, 41, and Yadier Molina, 40.
Relegated to a platoon designated hitter and pinch-hitter position, the percentages of Pujols clubbing the 21 homers he wanted for 700 appeared lengthy. Age and accidents had taken a toll. Pujols hit greater than 21 homers eleven in his earlier 5 seasons.
His tepid begin to 2022 did not gas a lot hope. Pujols had a season-low .189 common, .601 OPS, 4 homers and 17 RBIs in his first 43 video games — and the workforce’s first 87 video games — by July 4.
However a legacy choice to the July 19 All-Star Sport and a shocking run to the semifinals of the house run derby in Dodger Stadium, the place his fellow All-Stars engulfed him in a bunch hug in the course of the derby, appeared to rejuvenate Pujols.
Pujols warmed in late July and took off in early August. In 38 video games since Aug. 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 common (.261) and OPS (.845) to heights he hadn’t seen since 2012, when he hit .285 with an .859 OPS, 30 homers and 105 RBIs in his first 12 months with the Angels.
“It was a feel-good story for him to return to St. Louis, and I do not suppose anyone had any expectations,” Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman mentioned. “After which he was simply so energized on the All-Star Sport. It was so cool to see him being youthful and doing the derby and all that stuff. Just a little little bit of spark was lit for him.”
Pujols has at all times crushed left-handers — he has a profession .301 common and .954 OPS and is hitting .352 with a 1.154 OPS in opposition to them this season— however he is been hitting right-handers so properly that “it is laborious to take his bat out of the lineup,” Cardinals bench coach Skip Schumaker mentioned.
Schumaker, a former utility man who performed with Pujols from 2005-2012, mentioned the origins of Pujols’ dwelling run barrage run deeper than the derby. A 102.5-mph lineout to left discipline in opposition to Braves left-hander Will Smith within the seventh inning of a July 7 sport in Atlanta could have been the spark.
“He obtained again to the dugout and mentioned, ‘Man, I believe I discovered one thing,’ ” Schumaker mentioned. “He eradicated a transfer in how he masses his arms, obtained shorter to the ball, and one thing clicked to the place he felt sort of like he was again within the 2005-2010 period. I believe he obtained to strive it out within the dwelling run derby.”
Pujols’ OPS of 1,224 in August was the most effective in baseball amongst gamers with 65 plate appearances or extra. His .803 slugging share that month marked solely the third time in his profession he slugged .800 or higher in a calendar month.
He hit 5 homers in a single five-game span from Aug. 14-20, his march towards 700 turning right into a dash and fueling his workforce’s push from a half-game behind Milwaukee within the NL Central on the All-Star break to a 7 1/2-game lead.
“I do not know what number of of these video games in August we might have received with out him, truthfully,” Wainwright mentioned. “It is loopy to say that as a result of we have now the No. 1 MVP candidate [Paul Goldschmidt] and the No. 2 MVP candidate [Nolan Arenado] on our workforce, and Albert has carried us. He was one in every of, if not the, largest motive why we took the large lead in our division.”
Pujols, who’s six years older than Cardinals first-year supervisor Oliver Marmol, initially sneered at a query about his second-half energy arises.
“Energy surges? OK, I assume I did not have any energy, so I needed to seek for some,” Pujols mentioned in the course of the Padres collection. “Nothing actually [changed]. I took the swing I had in spring coaching into the season understanding if I belief my course of, like I at all times have for 23 years as an expert, ultimately it is gonna come round.
“Why it took this lengthy, I do not know. I believe God has his methods to show issues round. However for me, it was simply making an attempt to essentially repeat the identical swing that I have been doing for my complete profession.”
Pujols’ run at 700 has been overshadowed by New York Yankees slugger Aaron Decide’s Triple Crown pursuit and constructing of what is perhaps the best single-season offensive efficiency in baseball historical past, however on no account does that diminish Pujols’ accomplishments.
There have been some 22,800 huge league gamers, however solely three are in baseball’s unique 700 Membership, with Pujols knocking on the door, irrespective of how a lot he downplays the pursuit.
“I do not chase numbers — I did not chase 100 [homers], and I’ve obtained 698 of them,” Pujols mentioned. “What I am chasing is one other [World Series] ring for the Metropolis of St. Louis and our followers. That is why I signed again this 12 months.”
The Cardinals have 11 video games left, their closing six in opposition to the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates. If Pujols finishes the season caught at 698 or 699 homers, there shall be no try to succeed in 700 in 2023.
Regardless of placing up second-half numbers that Wainwright acknowledges are “sort of shocking for a 42-year-old,” the Machine shall be shut down this winter. Pujols mentioned in March that this shall be his final season, and he reiterated this week that his plans haven’t modified.
“You need to go along with your coronary heart, and I believe that is why I mentioned it in spring coaching, as a result of I knew one thing like this was going to occur, and if I end with a very good 12 months or have success, it was going to alter my thoughts,” Pujols mentioned.
“However after I say one thing, I’ll do it. So I am gonna retire after the World Collection, and I am gonna take pleasure in my life, my profession, my household and every part I’ve completed on this sport.”