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Albert Pujols is getting closer to 700 circuits

ST. LOUIS – Anyone who knows baseball knows better than to expect a perfect ending. Baseball is too tricky for that.

When Albert Pujols returned to the St. Louis Cardinals dugout this spring to join Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright for one last Cardinals ride — well, what more could you ask for? After all, decades of everyday baseball routine had reduced even the mighty Pujols to something less than he once was. Just being there, surviving long enough to come home with all there was left to give, was something.

But these daily baseball habits also include nightly lineups of baseball stars, who conspired to train Pujols in consistent moments with regularity. They did it enough that one September afternoon, in what would be Pujols’ last game against the rival Chicago Cubs, Ricky Horton of the Cardinals’ radio show couldn’t help but to wonder.

“If you were writing a script for this game, for Albert’s last game against the Cubs, I think the script would be him hitting a home run in a nothing-nothing late game,” Horton said, and Pujols , who was heading to the cages to take a few swings in case the Cubs brought in a southpaw for the eighth, heard him.

“He said he stopped and listened and was like ‘yeah, that would be cool,'” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol recalled. Minutes later, after a standing ovation as he emerged into the dugout and another as he entered the circle on the deck, Pujols hit that homerun.

“That’s why I smiled all the way when I reached first base all the way to home plate,” Pujols said then. “It was the last thing that crossed my mind. I couldn’t believe it had happened.

What happens to Pujols now, as he entered on Saturday with two circuits of the 700 in a season where he started with seemingly no chance of getting there, is also incredible that he is exactly what Albert Pujols was. In the first half of the season, Pujols hit .215 with .676 on-base plus slugging percentage. In the second half, he entered Saturday hitting .328 with a 1.109 OPS. If he had enough at-bats to qualify, he would have the second-best second-half OPS in the majors – second only to Aaron Judge.

Pujols doesn’t have enough batsmen to qualify because until recently the Cardinals didn’t use him regularly. They planned to win the National League Central and do it without vintage Albert Pujols. He hasn’t been that kind of hitter in quite some time, and Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt have been one of the hardest punches in the sport in the middle of their order. The Cardinals didn’t need vintage Albert Pujol.

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“When we originally signed him, we were going to have him face as many left-handers as possible and that’s it,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. “But the fact that he’s had some really hard-hitting shots lately against right-handers, I think that makes us all rethink a bit. And obviously the fans are coming in and wanting to see him hit. Thankfully, I haven’t queues. But maybe Oli [Marmol] has a little more pressure on him than two or three months ago.

Marmol, 35, is younger than Pujols, 42. He’s a freshman manager in a town that doesn’t allow anyone to get into his baseball business. And he spent his first year on the job earning a reputation for being remarkably straightforward, bordering on the straightforward. So when he says he’s building his rosters to win games, not hearts — to give the Cardinals the best chance of chasing the NL East leaders for the second seed in the NL playoffs and the bye that goes with – it is convincing.

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“The pieces just fell in a way where Albert swings a really good bat regardless,” Marmol said. “When I’m sitting here and doing the line-up, my main focus is how to win tonight, but that doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention to what’s going on. But my first filter is knowing how can we win.

Through that filter, playing Pujols against a right-handed pitcher instead of holding him against a good southpaw late hasn’t always been the right call this season. But lately, thinks Marmol, it has been.

Although Pujols hasn’t been in the lineup against Milwaukee Brewers ace Corbin Burnes the other three times the Cardinals have faced him this year, Marmol put him there this week. He noted that he could have used strike-prone Tyler O’Neill against the wizard Burnes, but that Pujols strikes far less frequently.

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But no one at Busch Stadium would have needed much explaining. Cardinals fans, picky and meticulous with their baseball, aren’t exactly clamoring for Marmol to pick his spots and seat Pujols more often.

“Yeah,” agreed Marmol. “I don’t think I saw a Facebook page for that one.”

But although they didn’t foresee this, no one around the Cardinals is surprised at what Pujols is doing – at least not more so than him.

“If you look at his batting practice, you’re like, this guy can still hit bombs,” Tommy Edman said, moments before Pujols hit a handful of batting practice fastballs into the third deck Thursday after -midday. This has been the case with Pujols for years, even as its numbers have slowed.

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He showed that power in the Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium, where he advanced to the second round with a controversial victory over Kyle Schwarber, although Schwarber was unafraid of scoring controversy as he raised and lowered the arms in praise of Pujols when the veteran moved on.

Because when young stars like Juan Soto and Julio Rodríguez electrified the Los Angeles night, they did so while showing reverence to Pujols, the most prolific Dominican hitter in history. Soto and Rodriguez were there because of what they bring now and what they could bring to the sport in the future. The commissioner’s office named Pujols to the list to honor his past.

And at this point, Pujols’ performance on the pitch mattered for far less than just his presence. Hitting .215 hasn’t stopped teams from showering it with memorabilia and playing tributes on video boards along the way. He didn’t have to be awesome again to feel appreciated. He didn’t need to wear cardinals to be cherished.

But in the weeks that followed, even as a pile of No. 5 jerseys for signing piled up near his locker, with the names of eager big leaguers who requested them taped to the top, even as stadiums stand each time he enters the box. , Pujols’ season has become less about his heritage, and more about his present.

“When he was named to the all-star team, I feel like that boosted him,” Mozeliak said. “If you look back to where we are today, success on the pitch is something that just started organically. I think with that comes confidence. Now I think that somehow he believes in it.

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The belief that Pujols could reach 700 has come slowly and steadily for those in the Cardinals clubhouse, who have never seen Pujols treat this season as a victory lap. His routines are legendary, the infrared sauna, his willingness to incorporate coaching into his analysis of his swing, even though he was so trusted here in his early years that he called his own hit-and-runs.

Pujols tells his teammates to train in such a way that they feel confident when playing, and for him that often means doing their job against high speed – training at game speed or faster, rather than to fine-tune things against a batting practice fastball.

“It’s something you’d expect a good major league hitter to do in preparation. It’s not something you would think of for someone at 42. I think about it all the time because we were born in the same year,” Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert said. “I’m like watching this thinking, ‘Man, this is so amazing. This is awesome.’

Albert and others around the Cardinals all point to the same few Pujols swings when they realized something special might be on the way. The Alberts (Jeff and Pujols) knew in a sacrificial volley in Atlanta just before the All-Star break that the adjustments they were making to help him cross the ball better were setting in, that his timing was back to where it needed it. .

Both Edman and Albert remember Pujols’ low strike against Kevin Gausman in Toronto at the end of July, which flew over 400 feet to dead center – the kind of right-right swing it was not supposed to deliver these days.

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There was the two-home run against the Brewers in Milwaukee and the tying home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates last weekend. And there was that swing against the Cubs, the one that almost made Pujols laugh as he rounded the bases, as his manager and teammates watched the man who did so much for the game and the franchise realize that it could end the way he wanted. after all.

“It was a different emotion for him after that home run,” recalls Marmol. “You could see it was like, ‘holy cow, this just happened.’ And he just smiled and laughed as he walked around the bases like I couldn’t believe that just happened.