When Albert Pujols’ bat caught fire in early August and it looked like the St. Louis Cardinals slugger would make an improbable 11-hour run to 700 home runs, Mark McGwire began following his long-ago teammate via the MLB app and off. to vote for as many Pujols plate appearances as he could.
“His at bats, he looks like he’s 25 again,” McGwire said of 42-year-old Pujols, who was a Cardinals rookie when McGwire hit the last of his 583 career homers in a St. Louis uniform in 2001. man is a born batter.”
But it wasn’t until McGwire returned to Busch Stadium on Aug. 27 for Matt Holliday’s Cardinals Hall-of-Fame dedication ceremony that he truly understood—literally, not figuratively—how Pujols, in his 22nd and final season in the big league, are has made a comeback. the thunder in its swing.
“When I saw Albert, I gave him a hug, and it’s like, you know when you hug someone, and you just say, ‘Oh man, I don’t want to mess with that guy?’ McGwire said in a phone interview. “When you hug Albert, you go, ‘I’m not going to mess with him because he’s as strong as s-.’ He hasn’t lost any strength yet.”
Dodgers fans will get a closer look at what McGwire and much of baseball has marveled at over the past two months, when Pujols and the leading Cardinals of the National League kick off a three-game run at Chavez Ravine on Friday night.
Pujols hit the 698th homer of his career, a two-run, score-tying shot that traveled 427 feet to left field last Friday night in a win over the Cincinnati Reds in St. Louis.
Pujols didn’t homer this week’s three-game series against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park, but with two long balls left, he will join Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) as the only players in major league history to hit 700 home runs.
So many Cardinals fans would love to see No. 700 hit 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 believed was over when the Angels released him in early May 2021 after Pujols had nil playoff wins over the course of his 10-year $240 million contract, and where his marking 2022 season got a boost shot.
Pujols was baseball’s most feared right-handed batter in the first 11 years of his St. Louis Hall-of-Fame career, hitting .328 with 1,037 on-base-plus slugging, 445 homers and 1,329 RBIs and was nicknamed “the machine” because of its metronome-like production.
Though he hit his 500th and 600th home run and collected his 3,000th basehit and 2,000th RBI for the Angels, various lower-body injuries and age sapped the first baseman’s prodigious strength, and his production plummeted. He hit .256 with a .758 OPS and averaged 24 home runs and 85 RBI’s in nine full seasons in Anaheim.
Less than a week after he was released, Pujols, then 41 and having 667 career homers, signed with the Dodgers. The move to a World Series contender — even in a minor role — seemed to “rekindle his love for the game,” McGwire said. “He got the fire in him again.”
Pujols hit .254 with a .759 OPS, 12 home runs and 38 RBIs in 85 games for the Dodgers, including a .953 OPS against lefties, and enjoyed his role as a mentor to his new teammates, who affectionately referred to him as “Tio Albert” . and looked for his bear hugs in the dugout.
“Last year I saw another Albert when he got here,” said Dino Ebel, Dodgers third base coach, Angels coach from 2006 to 2018. “I know things didn’t go the way he wanted with the Angels, but then he came here, he was happy, he was a different man.
“He knew his role. He accepted his role. The team bought him in. He bought in the system, the culture. He fit right in, and I think it just made a difference in Albert and the way he career ends now.”
Pujols has been receiving regular text messages and FaceTime calls from former Dodgers teammates cheering him on during his 700 chase and is looking forward to reaching out to them again this weekend.
“It was great,” Pujols said of his Dodgers stint. “Playing there for five months and the energy of the fans and how the organization treated me with respect and honor, that was really special. And to be back in the playoffs… that spot was electric. I think that really helped me to come back and play another year.”
When Pujols signed a $2.5 million one-year deal to return to St. Louis last March, it was considered a goodwill gesture by the Cardinals, so the local icon was able to get a few at bats against left-handed pitchers and enjoy from a farewell tour with fellow Cardinals veterans Adam Wainwright, 41, and Yadier Molina, 40.
The odds of Pujols hitting the 21 home runs he needed for 700 seemed long. Age and injuries had taken a toll. Pujols hit more than 21 homeruns in his previous five seasons.
His lukewarm start to 2022 didn’t fuel much hope. Pujols had a season-low average of 0.189, 0.601 OPS, four home runs and 17 RBIs in his first 43 games – and the team’s first 87 games – through July 4.
But a legacy roster for the July 19 All-Star Game and a surprise run to the semifinals of the home run derby at Dodger Stadium, where his fellow All-Stars swallowed him in a group hug during the derby, Pujols seemed to rejuvenate.
Pujols warmed up in late July and departed in early August. In 38 games since August 10, Pujols has hit .313 (35 for 112) with an OPS of 1,071, 12 home runs – the third-highest in baseball in that period – and 29 RBIs to increase his season average (0.261) and OPS ( .845) to heights he hadn’t seen since 2012, when he hit .285 with a .859 OPS, 30 home runs and 105 RBI’s in his first year with the Angels.
“It was a feel-good story for him to go back to St. Louis, and I don’t think anyone had any expectations,” said Freddie Freeman, Dodgers first baseman. “And then he was just so energetic at the All-Star Game. It was so cool to see him being youthful and doing the derby and all that stuff. A small spark was lit in front of him.”
Pujols has always crushed left-handers — he has a career average of .301 and .954 OPS and is hitting .352 with a 1.154 OPS against them this season — but he hits right-handers so well that “it’s hard to get his bat out of the lineup” said Cardinals bench coach Skip Schumaker.
Schumaker, a former utility player who played with Pujols from 2005-2012, said the origins of Pujols’ homerun jump-off go 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 found something,'” Schumaker said. “He eliminated some movement in the way he loaded his hands, got closer to the ball, and clicked something to where he kind of felt like he was back in the 2005-2010 era. I think he should try it in the home run derby.”
Pujols’ OPS of 1,224 in August was the best in baseball among players with 65 at bats or more. His .803 slugging percentage that month was only the third time in his career that he slugs .800 or better within a calendar month.
He hit five home runs in one five game period from August 14-20, his march to 700 turned into a sprint and fueled his team’s push from half a game behind Milwaukee in the NL Central during the All-Star break to a 7 1/2-game lead.
“I honestly don’t know how many of those August games we would have won without him,” Wainwright said. “It’s crazy to say that because we have the number 1 MVP candidate [Paul Goldschmidt] and the No. 2 MVP candidate [Nolan Arenado] in our team, and Albert carried us. He was one of, if not the, biggest reason why we took the big lead in our division.”
Pujols, who is six years older than Cardinals freshman manager Oliver Marmol, initially sneered at a question about his second-half power surge.
“Power surge? Okay, I guess I didn’t have any power, so I had to look for it,” Pujols said during the Padres series. “Nothing really. [changed]. I took the swing I had in spring training into the season knowing that if I trust my process, as I have always done as a professional for 23 years, sooner or later it will happen.
‘I don’t know why it took so long. I think God has his ways of turning things around. But for me it was just trying to really repeat the same swing that I’ve been doing my entire career. ”
Pujols’ run at 700 has been overshadowed by New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge’s Triple Crown pursuit and building of what may be the greatest single-season offensive feat in baseball history, but that in no way diminishes Pujols’ performance.
There have been some 22,800 big league players, but there are only three in baseball’s exclusive 700 Club, with Pujols knocking on the door no matter how much he downplays the chase.
“I don’t chase numbers – I don’t chase 100 [homers], and I have 698,” said Pujols. “What I’m chasing is another” [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 left, their last six against the last place Pittsburgh Pirates. If Pujols finishes the season with 698 or 699 home runs, there will be no attempt to reach 700 in 2023.
Despite posting second-half numbers that Wainwright acknowledges are “a little surprising for a 42-year-old,” the Machine will be shut down this winter. Pujols said in March that this will be his last season and he reiterated this week that his plans have not changed.
“You have to go with your heart, and I think that’s why I said it in spring training because I knew something like this would happen, and if I ended up with a good year or had success, it would my mind,” said Pujols .
“But when I say something, I 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.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.