Albert Pujols’ chase for 700 homers gets grand boost with recent binge

ST. LOUIS – The Albert Pujols countdown has officially started.

The Cooperstown hitter hit the 690th home run of his career Thursday afternoon, a grand slam in the third inning that led to a 13-0 win for the Cardinals over the Rockies. We’ll get back to the rather amazing — and revealing — context of that home run in a minute.

With 45 games remaining in the regular season, Pujols is 10 homers away from hitting the magical 700-homer plateau, a milestone first set by Babe Ruth in 1934, then by Henry Aaron in 1973, and finally by Barry Bonds in 2004. It’s a long way, no doubt considering Pujols has just 11 homers at this point in the season.

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Perhaps more achievable — and satisfying for many in baseball — would be hitting 697 career home runs, putting him one over the final total of Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to having PEDs in two different extended periods during his 22-season career to have used . That seems more reasonable, especially considering Pujols has had four home runs in his last six games, a stretch that includes a .526 batting average and 11 RBIs.

Yes, even at 42, Pujols is capable of a home run binge.

“We’re kind of living in his shadow right now, and we should be,” Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright said after Thursday’s game. “He is unbelievable.”

Wainwright paused, then said it again, more firmly.

“He is unbelievable.”

Returning to St. Louis for his 22nd and final season, Mr. Incredible not only wanted to play again in the city where he became a superstar, but also wanted to contribute as a clout bat from the bench. The Cardinals clearly outlined what they saw as his potential role — providing power against left-handed pitchers, off the bench and as a designated hitter — before agreeing to the contract, and Pujols gladly accepted the assignment.

“He came here to win and not just be part of a story,” Cardinals manager Oli Marmol said.

He was better than they had hoped.

Overall, Pujols has 132 OPS+, which is his best mark since 2012, his first year with the Angels. His on-base percentage is 0.335, his best since 2012. His advanced metrics tell the same story; his wOBA (.349) and wRC+ (128) are also his best since 2012. Statcast began recording batted ball data in 2015, and his 2022 barrel percentage (10.0) and hard hit percentage ( 48.1) are peak values.

“He was amazing, everything you want and expect,” NL MVP favorite Paul Goldschmidt told The Sporting News on Wednesday. “Obviously he’s one of the greatest players to have ever played, but he was such a great teammate, such a great person. He is very positive and helps the players. Just sets an example of how I want to be and how I want other teammates to be. It’s great to have this example.”

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Pujols has thrived in part because the Cardinals put him in situations where he can thrive. In 92 plate appearances against lefties this year, Pujols has a .363/.402/.700 slash with seven homers and 21 RBIs. Throughout his career, he’s traditionally been a better hitter with runners in goal position – .995 OPS versus an .891 with empty bases – and this year is no different. Pujols has a 1,032 OPS with RISP.

Which brings us back to his pinch-hit home run on Thursday.

Think about what happened to this unlikely scenario. The Rockies launched a right-handed pitcher, Antonio Senzatela, so switch hitter Brendan Donovan was the DH and batted at No. 2 on the lineup. Senzatela left the game with a knee injury in the second inning – he was hurt trying to make a play on a Donovan grounder – and the Rockies turned to left Austin Gomber.

By the time Donovan’s place in the lineup came up in the third inning, the Cardinals had loaded bases and held a 6-0 lead with two outs. Marmol sent Pujols to pinch hit. For the DH in the third inning. Needless to say, you won’t normally see this. It probably didn’t hurt that Pujols flew ahead of Gomber in Colorado last week.

“He killed left-handers,” Marmol said. “The game is never over, but with a good swing you can put the game away there. I liked wowing the crowd. We felt good about it.”

And you know what Pujols did to Gomber’s 1-0 pitch.

“He does. He’s always done that,” said Wainwright, who was a teammate with Pujols from 2005 to 2011, a streak that included two World Series titles (although Wainwright was injured in 2011). “I tell these stories all the time, and now they really believe me, I think. They said, ‘Yeah right, he’s not THAT much better than so and so.’ And I’m like, ‘You have to know that’s what he’s been doing all along. That’s him.'”

But back to the home run countdown. Can Pujols hit 10 homers in the club’s last 45 games?

As we’ve seen over the past week, he’s still capable of hitting home runs. But an extended run? Using Baseball-Reference’s Span feature, we checked to see if he’d hit at least 10 home runs in a 45-game span over the past few years. We’ve limited it to recent history because let’s face it, what Pujols, 26, might do has very little impact on what Pujols, 42, might be able to do to finish the season.

It turns out Pujols had a streak of 10 home runs in 45 games in 2018.

And in 2019.

And in 2020.

Even in 2021, when the Angels fired him and he signed with the Dodgers.

Hell, he’s got seven in his last 21 games this year.

“He looks just like he did when he walked up to me,” Wainwright said. “This is what he should look like, here in this stadium, when he’s doing these things. In the other 10 years I don’t know what happened, but in the 12 years that I’ve seen him here he’s been pretty good.”

The search for 700 continues in Arizona this weekend. Incidentally, the Diamondbacks have a left starter on the mound Friday night. And another Saturday. The Cubs are also scheduled to start a left-hander against the Cardinals on Monday.

stay tuned folks Stay tuned.

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