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Rejuvenated Albert Pujols brings his chase for 700 home runs to Dodger Stadium

When Albert Pujols’ bat caught fire in early August and it looked like the St. Louis Cardinals’ bat was about to hit an unlikely 11-hour streak for 700 home runs, Mark McGwire began tracking his longtime teammate through the MLB app and to adjust to as many Pujols record appearances as he could.

“His bats, 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 home runs in a St. Louis uniform in 2001. “This guy is a born hitter.”

But it wasn’t until McGwire returned to Busch Stadium on August 27 for Matt Holliday’s induction ceremony into the Cardinals Hall of Fame that he really caught on – literally, not figuratively – like Pujols did in his 22nd and final season in the big league the thunder has recaptured in its momentum.

“When I saw Albert I gave him a hug, and it’s like, you know, when you give someone a hug and you’re just like, ‘Oh man, I don’t want to mess with this guy?’ ‘ McGwire said in a phone interview. “When you hug Albert you say, ‘I’m not going to mess with him because he’s as strong as s—.’ He hasn’t lost any strength.”

Dodgers fans will get a close look at what McGwire and much of baseball have been marveling at over the past two months when Pujols and the leading National League Cardinals begin a three-game streak at Chavez Ravine Friday night.

Pujols hit the 698th homer of his career, a two-barrel shot that traveled 427 feet to left field as he won the Cincinnati Reds in St. Louis last Friday night.

Pujols didn’t homer in this week’s three-game streak against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park, but with two more long balls he’ll join Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) as the only tied player in major league history with 700 home runs.

As much as Cardinals fans would love that No. 700 would be 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 have one provide a suitable backdrop for this milestone shot.

It was here that Pujols revived a career many felt was over when the Angels released him in early May 2021 after Pujols had failed to achieve playoff wins over the course of his 10-year, $240 million contract and where his flagging 2022 season brought one Booster got shot.

Pujols was baseball’s most feared right-hander for the first 11 years of his Hall of Fame career at St. Louis, where he hit .328 with a 1.037 on-base plus slugging percentage, 445 home runs and 1,329 RBIs and earned the nickname “the Machine” for its metronome-like production.

Although he hit his 500th and 600th home runs and his 3,000th. hits and his 2,000. RBI for the Angels, multiple lower body injuries and age sapped the first baseman’s amazing strength and performance. He hit .256 with .758 OPS and averaged 24 homers and 85 RBIs over nine full seasons at Anaheim.

Less than a week after his release, Pujols, then 41 and with 667 career homers, signed with the Dodgers. Moving to a World Series contender — even in a smaller role — seemed to “rekindle his love for the game,” McGwire said. “It reignited the fire in him.”

Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner hugs Albert Pujols after hitting a home run in wild-card play on Oct. 6, 2021.

Albert Pujols hugs Justin Turner after Turner’s home run in the Dodgers wildcard game against the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 6, 2021.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Pujols hit .254 with .759 OPS, 12 homers and 38 RBIs in 85 games for the Dodgers, including .953 OPS against lefties, and enjoyed his role as a mentor to his new teammates, who affectionately nicknamed him “Tio Albert.” and sought his bear hugs in the dugout.

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

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

Pujols has received regular text messages and FaceTime calls from former Dodgers teammates who have encouraged him in his quest for 700 and looks forward to reconnecting with them this weekend.

“It was great,” Pujols said of his stint with the Dodgers. “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 place was electric. I think that really helped me come back and play another year.”

When Pujols signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal to return to St. Louis last March, it was taken as a sort of goodwill gesture by the Cardinals, allowing the local icon to take a few hits at lefties and pitchers was able to enjoy a farewell tour with fellow Cardinals veterans Adam Wainwright, 41, and Yadier Molina, 40.

Relegated to the role of a platoon labeled hitter and pinch-hitter, the chances of Pujols clubbing the 21 homers he needed for 700 seemed long. Age and injuries had taken their toll. Pujols once hit 21 home runs in his last five seasons.

His tepid start to 2022 didn’t inspire much hope. Pujols was averaging a season-low .189, .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 selection for the July 19 All-Star Game and a surprise home run derby semifinals at Dodger Stadium, where his fellow All-Stars wrapped him in a group hug during the derby, seemed to rejuvenate Pujols .

Pujols warmed up in late July and started in early August. In 38 games since Aug. 10, Pujols has hit .313 (35 for 112) with 1,071 OPS, 12 home runs — the third most in baseball for that span — and 29 RBIs to improve on his season average (.261) and OPS (.845) to heights he hadn’t seen since 2012, when he hit .285 with a .859 OPS, 30 homers and 105 RBIs in his freshman year with the Angels.

“It was a feel-good story for him to come back to St. Louis and I don’t think anyone had any expectations,” said Freddie Freeman, first baseman for the Dodgers. “And then at the All-Star Game, he was just so energetic. It was so cool to see him young and doing the derby and all that stuff. A little spark was kindled for him.”

Fellow All-Stars pay tribute to Albert Pujols (5) during the home run derby at Dodger Stadium on July 18, 2022.

Fellow All-Stars pay tribute to Albert Pujols (5) during the July 18 home run derby at Dodger Stadium.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Pujols has always beaten lefties – he has career averages of .301 and .954 OPS and is hitting .352 with 1.154 OPS against them this season – but he’s beating righties so well that “it’s hard to take his racquet out of the lineup”, said Cardinals coach Skip Schumaker.

Schumaker, a former utility man who played at Pujols from 2005 to 2012, said the origins of Pujols’ home run barrage go deeper than the derby. A 102.5-mile lineout to left field against Brave’s left-hander Will Smith in the seventh inning of a July 7 game in Atlanta may have been the spark.

“He came back to the dugout and said, ‘Man, I think I found something,'” Schumaker said. “He eliminated a movement loading his hands, got shorter to the ball, and something clicked where he kind of felt like it was in the 2005-2010 era. I think he needs to try it in the home run derby.”

Pujols’ OPS of 1,224 in August was the best in baseball among players with 65 plate appearances or more. His .803 slugging percentage this month was only the third time in his career that he had slugged .800 or more in a calendar month.

From August 14-20, he hit five homers in a five-game span, turning his march toward 700 into a sprint and fueling his team’s push from a half-game behind Milwaukee in the NL Central in the All-Star Break to a 7 1/2 game lead.

“Honestly, I 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 #1 MVP nominee [Paul Goldschmidt] and the #2 MVP nominee [Nolan Arenado] in our team and Albert carried us. He was one of, if not the main, reason why we took the big lead in our division.”

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

“Overvoltage? OK, I guess I didn’t have any strength, so I had to look for something,” Pujols said during the Padres series. “Nothing really [changed]. I took the momentum I had in spring training into the season knowing that if I trust my process, as I have always done for 23 years as a pro, it will come sooner or later.

“I don’t know why it took so long. I think God has ways of turning things around. But for me it was just trying to really replicate the same swing that I’ve had throughout my career.”

Pujol’s run at 700 was overshadowed by New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge’s Triple Crown pursuit and building up perhaps the greatest single-season offensive effort in baseball history, but that in no way detracts from Pujols’ accomplishments.

There were about 22,800 Big League players, but only three are in baseball’s exclusive 700 club, and Pujols is knocking on the door no matter how much he downplays the pursuit.

Cardinals designated hitter Albert Pujols points to the sky after his home run against the Diamondbacks Aug. 20.

Cardinals designated hitter Albert Pujols points to the sky after his home run against the Diamondbacks Aug. 20.

(Matt York/Associated Press)

“I’m not chasing numbers – I’m not chasing 100 [homers], and I have 698 of them,” said Pujols. “What I hunt is someone else [World Series] Ring for the City of St. Louis and our fans. That’s why I signed again this year.”

The Cardinals have 11 games left, their last six against bottom-placed Pittsburgh Pirates. If Pujols ends the season with 698 or 699 home runs, there will be no attempt to hit 700 in 2023.

Although Wainwright concedes that the numbers for the second half are “kind of surprising for a 42-year-old,” the machine will close 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 was going to happen and if I finish on a good year or succeed, it would change my mind,” he said Pujols.

“But if I say something, I will do it. So after the World Series, I’m going to retire and enjoy my life, my career, my family and everything I’ve accomplished in this game.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-09-23/albert-pujols-pursuit-of-700-home-runs-cardinals-dodgers Rejuvenated Albert Pujols brings his chase for 700 home runs to Dodger Stadium

Emma Bowman

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