Albert Pujols’ revamped brings his 700 home run chase to Dodger Stadium

St. Louis Cardinals’ Albert Pujols hits a home double of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chase de Jong on Sept. (Jane J. Buscar/The Associated Press)

When Albert Pujols’ bat caught fire in early August and it emerged that the St. Louis Cardinals would run an improbable 11-hour run to 700, Mark McGuire began tracking his longtime teammate through the MLB app and tuning. Many appearances of Pujols painting as he could.

“He looks like he’s 25 again,” McGuire said of 42-year-old Pujols, who was a rookie for the Cardinals when McGuire hit the last 583 of his career in a St. Louis uniform in 2001. This guy was born a hitter.”

But it wasn’t until McGuire returned to Busch Stadium for Matt Holliday’s Cardinals Hall of Fame induction event on August 27 that he really realized – literally, not figuratively – how the Pujols, in his twenty-second and final season of the big league, reclaimed thunder in a hammock.

“When I saw Albert, I hugged him, and it was like, you know when you hug someone, and you just go, ‘Man, I don’t want to mess with that guy?'” “When you hug Albert, you go, ‘I’m not going to mess with him because he’s as strong as an S’,” McGuire said in a phone interview. He didn’t lose any power.”

Dodgers fans will get an up-close look at what amazed McGuire and much of baseball over the past two months when the Pujols and the National League Cardinals began their three-game streak at Chavez Raven on Friday night.

Pujols hit the 698th homer of his career, a two-stage equalizer shot that cut 427 feet to the left in the win over the Cincinnati Reds in St. Louis last Friday night.

The Pujols did not feature in this week’s three-game series against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park, but with two more long balls, he will join Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Bay Ruth (714) as the only players in Major League history to hit 700 point on their land.

As much as fans of the Cardinals would like the 700 in St. Louis, where the Pujols won three NL Most Valuable Players Awards and led the Cardinals to world championship titles in 2006 and 2011, Dodger Stadium will provide a fitting backdrop for this momentous shot.

It was here that Pujols rekindled a career that many thought ended when the Angels released him in early May 2021 after Pujols had zero wins over 10 years and his $240 million contract, and as their faltering 2022 season got a booster shot.

Pujols was baseball’s most feared right-handed hitter in the first 11 years of his Hall of-Fame career in St. Louis, hitting 0.328 with a 1,037 on-plus average, 445 Homers and 1,329 RBIs and nicknamed “The Machine” for his production which resembles a metronome.

Although he hit his teammates 500 and 600 and earned his hits 3000 and 2000 RBI for Angels, numerous lower-body injuries and age drained the first cop of his formidable strength, and his production declined. He hit .256 with .758 OPS, averaged 24 homers and 85 RBI in nine full seasons at Anaheim.

Less than a week after his release, Pujols, then 41 with 667 professional homeowners, signed with the Dodgers. McGuire said moving to a World Championship contender – even if it’s a lesser role – appears to be “re-igniting his love of the game”. “It caught fire again.”

Justin Turner, the third baseman for the Dodgers, hugs Albert Pujols after he hits home in a wild card game on October 6, 2021.

Albert Pujols hugs Justin Turner after Turner’s home run in the Dodgers’ wild game against the St. Louis Cardinals on October 6, 2021. (Robert Gautier/Los Angeles Times)

Pujols hit .254 with .759 OPS, 12 Homers and 38 RBIs in 85 games for the Dodgers, including .953 OPS against the Left, and enjoyed his role as mentor to his new teammates, who affectionately called him “Tio Albert” and sought to hug his bear in the bunker.

“I saw Albert different last year when he got here,” said Dodgers third base coach Dino Ebel, Angels coach from 2006 to 2018. “I know things didn’t go the way he wanted with the Angels, but when he got here, he was happy. He was a man. different.

“He knew his role. Before his role. The team bought him. He bought the system, the culture. He fit right in, and I think he made a difference to Albert and the way he’s ending his career now.”

Pujols has received regular text messages and FaceTime calls from his former Dodgers teammates offering encouragement during his quest for 700 people and looks forward to reconnecting with them this weekend.

“It was great,” Pujols said of his Dodgers tenure. “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 coming back to the playoffs… That place was so electrified. I think that’s what really helped me to come back and play for another year.”

When the Pujols signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal to return to St. Louis last March, the Cardinal considered something of a goodwill gesture, so the local icon could get a few bats against left-handed pitchers and enjoy a farewell tour with his old fellow Cardinals. Adam Wainwright, 41, and Yadir Molina, 40.

The odds of the Pujols hitting the 21 homers he needed for 700 seemed long, having been relegated to a platoon assigned the role of hitter and pinch hitter. Age and injuries took a heavy toll. Pujols hit more than 21 homers once in his previous five seasons.

His tepid start to 2022 hasn’t sparked much hope. The Pujols had a low season average of 0.189, .601 OPS, four other players and 17 RBIs in his first 43 games—and the team’s first 87 games—as of July 4.

But an outdated selection for the July 19 All-Star Game and a surprise advance to the semi-finals of the running derby at Dodger Stadium, where his All-Stars teammates swept him into a group hug during the derby, seemed to revitalize the Pujols.

Pujols warmed up in late July and took off in early August. In 38 games since August 10, the Pujols have averaged 0.313 (35 for 112) with 1,071 OPS, 12 Homers—the third most baseball game in that period—and 29 RBI to push their season average (.261) and OPS (.845) to Heights he hasn’t seen since 2012, when he hit .285 with .859 OPS, 30 homers and 105 RBIs in his first year with the Angels.

“It was a good story for him to come back to St. Louis, and I don’t think anyone has any expectations,” said Freddy Freeman, the Dodgers’ number one businessman. “And then he was very active in the All-Star Game. It was great to see him young and doing the derby and all that stuff. I lit his little spark.”

Fellow All-Stars paid tribute to Albert Pujols (5) during a home derby match at Dodger Stadium on July 18, 2022.

Fellow All-Stars paid tribute to Albert Pujols (5) during the home run derby at Dodger Stadium on July 18. (Gina Verazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Pujols have always crushed left-handers—he has an average career of .301 and .954 OPS and hits .352 with 1,154 OPS against them this season—but he’s been hitting with his right hand so well that it’s “hard to take his racket off the bench,” Cardinals coach Skip Schumaker said.

Schumaker, a former utility man who played for the Pujols from 2005 to 2012, said the origins of the home run in the Pujols run deeper than the derby. The 102.5 mph streak to the left of the field against Will Smith of the left Braves in the seventh inning of the July 7 game in Atlanta may be the spark.

“He went back to the dugout and said, ‘Man, I think I found something,’” Schumacher said. “He removed a movement in how he loaded his hands, got shorter on the ball, and clicked something where he felt like he was back in the 2005-2010 era. I think he got to experience that in the home run derby.”

The Pujols’ OPS of 1,224 in August was the best in baseball among players with 65 or more games. His slow 803 that month was only the third time in his career that he’s topped 0.800 or better in a calendar month.

He hit five players in one of his five games August 14-20, turning his 700 career into a sprint and fueling his team’s push from a half-game behind Milwaukee at NL Central in the All-Star break to a 7 1/2-lead in the game.

“I don’t know how many games in August we would have won without him, honestly,” Wainwright said. “It’s crazy to say that because we have the No. 1 candidate for best player [Paul Goldschmidt] And the No. 2 candidate is the best player [Nolan Arenado] On our team, we have carried Albert. He was one of, if not the biggest, reason why we took the top spot in our division.”

At first, Pujols, who is six years older than first-year Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, scoffed at a question about increasing his strength in the second half.

“High power? Well, I guess I didn’t have any, so I had to look for some,” Pujols said during the Padres series. “Nothing really [changed]. I’ve taken the swing of my spring training to the season knowing if I trust my work, like I always have for 23 years as a professional, sooner or later, it will.

“Why it took so long, I don’t know. I think God has his ways to turn things around. But for me, it was just trying to repeat the same swing that I’ve been doing throughout my career.”

The Pujols’ 700 were overshadowed by New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge’s Triple Crown and building what may be the greatest offensive single-season performance in baseball history, but that in no way diminishes the Pujols’ accomplishments.

There were about 22,800 major league players, but only three of them in the exclusive 700 Club baseball game, with Pujols knocking on the door, no matter how much they underestimated his pursuit.

Cardinals-designate hitter Albert Pujols points to the sky after a home net against the Diamondbacks on August 20.

Cardinals-designate hitter Albert Pujols points to the sky after a home net against the Diamondbacks on August 20. (Matt York/The Associated Press)

“I don’t chase numbers – I don’t chase 100 [homers]and I have 698 of them,” Pujols said. “What I’m chasing is something else [World Series] A ring for the city of St. Louis and our fans. That’s why I signed up again this year.”

The Cardinals have 11 games left, their last six against the bottom-ranked Pittsburgh Pirates. If the Pujols finish the season stuck at 698 or 699 homers, there will be no attempt to reach 700 in 2023.

Despite providing second-half numbers that Wainwright admits are “kind of surprising for a 42-year-old,” the device will be shutting down this winter. Pujols said in March that this would be his last season, and this week reiterated that his plans have not changed.

“You have to go with your heart, and I think that’s why I said that in spring training, because I knew something like that was going to happen, and if I finished a good year or had a hit, it would change that,” Pujols said.

“But when I say something, I will do it. So I will retire after the world championships, and I will enjoy my life, my career, my family and everything I have accomplished in this game.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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