‘He’s the GOAT’ – What it’s like watching Albert Pujols become Albert Pujols again

Drew Smyly preparing for the seventh inning of a scoreless clash against the St. Louis Cardinals knew one error could change the game — especially for a hitter like Albert Pujols, who stands for his third at-bat in Monday’s game.

To his delight, the Chicago Cubs left-hander threw the field exactly where he wanted it. It was a high fastball, 4.23 feet off the ground. Smyly’s goal was an eye level change offer to set Pujols up for the next pitch, which would lead a little down. Instead, there was no next pitch.

To the surprise of almost everyone watching — especially the man who threw it — Pujols swung at the high fastball and pulled it deep into the night air for his 693rd career home run. He circled the bases at Wrigley Field while his teammates looked on, wide-eyed and smiling.

“It was crazy,” said rookie Nolan Gorman. “You don’t see many people hitting balls like that.”

It was the second-highest pitch hit for a home run by a player that season. For Pujols, it was the highest pitch he’s hit since at least 2008 — and only the third-highest pitch he’s ever pitched in that span.

“He’s ‘The Machine’ for a reason,” Smyly said afterwards with a grin. “He is back.”

That home run was the Cardinals’ only 1-0 win and added another chapter to the legendary career of one of the best batsmen the game has ever seen.

If that were all the 42-year-old now part-time player did this month, it would still be remarkable. But it was anything but a one-off event. Pujols is on fire — he’s had seven homers with 14 RBIs and a .548 batting average since Aug. 10 — and nobody’s happier about it than his teammates.

“It’s cool to be a part of history,” said NL MVP favorite Paul Goldschmidt this week. “I’ll never be a part of anything like that again. I try to absorb everything.”

All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado added, “He truly believes he should never lose a fight or ever be beaten. Even at this age. That’s something I admire.”

Pujols wasn’t hit often in August. This month, he ranks first in MLB for batting average, OBP, slugging and OPS among players with at least 40 plate appearances and ranks first in home runs. Meanwhile, 10 of his 14 homers this year have been driven since early July. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, no player age 42 or older — not even Barry Bonds — has ever hit more than 13 home runs in July or later of any season. Just like his first stint with the Cardinals a decade ago, Pujols’ bats are once again a must.

“Let’s say I have an o-fer and I hit it and I’m depressed and I take my hat off,” Arenado said. “I heard Albert Pujols is coming, I want to make sure I hurry up and go outside to watch. Over the course of the year, I am not surprised at how much work he puts in.”

It’s a recurring theme when talking to people close to Pujols: it’s no coincidence. More than two decades into his career, he’s still looking for ways to improve – and his hard work is paying off.

“He covers curveballs down and fastballs up,” Smyly explained of Pujols’ recent approach to the plate. “Against left-handers at least you can feel him trying to hit the ball in front of the plate instead of seeing it low like most batsmen. You hear that a lot in baseball, ‘see him deep.’ It’s kind of the opposite of what most hitters do. He tries to hit the ball in front of the plate; it looks like he wants to pull everything. Usually this involves cheating a fastball or curveball. He does hit both of them now.”

While 10 of Pujol’s 2022 home runs came off fastballs, he’s also hit three breaking balls and one changeup. And while his ability to tailor his approach has put individual accomplishments — such as becoming the fourth member of baseball’s 700 homer club — within reach, winning is still the most important thing for Pujols.

Gorman said, “The coolest thing is that he’s not just doing this to hit 700 homers, he’s here to help this team win. He made that a point.”

The Cardinals are gaining big thanks in part to Pujols. They were three games behind first place in the NL Central when this month (and its hot streak) began, but now the Milwaukee Brewers lead by six games.

“I wasn’t with him when he was in his prime,” Arenado said. “Waino [Adam Wainwright] and these guys say he would do that every night.”

Wainwright’s perspective is unique. A teammate of Pujols from 2005 to 2011, and now he’s being transported back to Albert’s prime.

“He has a noise when he hits it,” said Wainwright, who was in the dugout earlier this week. “And he does that thing where he stands up, you know it’s a homer. He has that look about him.”

Wainwright mimicked the spin and look Pujols makes when he knows the ball is going off the field. Smyly was the latest in a line of 449 different pitchers to see this move, which ties Pujols to Bonds for home runs that have hit the most pitchers in MLB history.

“He finally got me,” Smyly said. “He’s the GOAT.”

His teammates would agree, and days later that home run was still the talk of the Cardinals clubhouse.

“I was in the hole for that, standing on the top step of the dugout,” said infielder Paul DeJong. “I just saw where it was and its swing and I couldn’t believe it. I figured he might as well pimp it because if that ball hits the wall, he might not get a double. But he knows when to get one.”

“You look at your teammates and say, ‘How high was the pitch?’ You can’t even believe he got to the top. But it’s Albert,” Wainwright added. “What are you doing? That’s a really good pitch. That gets a lot of people out.”

Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol cocked his head slightly when asked about Pujol’s 14th home game of the season.

“You don’t come out on that pitch and hit it,” Marmol said. “I can’t remember who was standing next to me, I think it was Goldy [Goldschmidt], who said, ‘How did he even do that?’ What came out of him was interesting because he did some pretty special stuff himself.”

Goldschmidt is indeed firing on all cylinders, currently a contender for the first Triple Crown title in 10 years. But he remains in awe of what Pujols has accomplished this season.

“There are probably five times with him this year,” said Goldschmidt. “It was a great swing. It’s kind of weird. All you can do is smile and laugh. That’s why he’s one of the best of all time.”

As much as his teammates admire Pujols’ performances, the conversation almost always returns to his presence in the clubhouse.

DeJong recalls the encouragement and a big hug after being recently called back by the minors. Gorman “sucks” all the wise advice from the future Hall of Famer. Juan Yepez had Pujols as a mentor who he can rely on throughout the season.

It’s those moments that Pujols will be remembered for as much as the home runs and countless record-breaking stats he’s amassed in a career getting a second act back where it all began in St. Louis over two decades ago.

Pujols has shown no sign of returning for a 23rd season in 2023, but then again he now has seven home runs from one milestone and 21 from another.

“I don’t know if he really wants to be done after this year,” DeJong said. “He’s playing fantastic. If he goes off like that, he’ll come out on top. I think he can overtake Babe Ruth but we’ll see what happens.”

https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/34453583/goat-watching-albert-pujols-become-albert-pujols-again ‘He’s the GOAT’ – What it’s like watching Albert Pujols become Albert Pujols again

Emma Bowman

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