MILWAUKEE – The jester never should call out the king. This has been fairly obvious since feudal times, and the moment Nyjer Morgan(notes) decided to unleash his Tony Plush routine on the world, he needed to adopt it as his ultimate tenet. Have fun. Joke around. But don't ever forget who you are and who really runs this racket.
Somewhere along the way, the Milwaukee Brewers' winning emboldened the clown. He made Albert Pujols(notes) the object of his mockery, calling him "Alberta" on Twitter. And whether it was this year or next, Morgan set in motion a certainty: Pujols, baseball royalty, would sharpen the guillotine and do what monarchs do.
Now that the deed is done, gone is the Brewers' home-field advantage and their sheen of invincibility at Miller Park. Gone, too, is the grip they held on the National League Championship Series. With four swings of varying wrath and similar damage, Pujols lifted his St. Louis Cardinals to a 12-3 victory Monday night in Game 2 of the NLCS, a bloodbath that swung the pendulum back to the Cardinals as they head home for the series' next three contests.
Never did Pujols play the game into which Morgan tried goading him. He sat back, his teammates said, soaked in the insult, internalized his anger and promised to answer with a Newtonian rejoinder. That the second of Pujols' playoff-record-tying four extra-base hits happened to flummox Morgan and cause him to crash into the center-field wall was the whipped cream atop the chocolate sauce, to which he'd later add some sprinkles and a cherry.
By the end of the night, Pujols had set postseason career-highs in runs batted in (five), total bases (10) and pests silenced (one). He vanquished a 47-at-bat homerless streak in the postseason with a first-inning shot off Brewers starter Shaun Marcum(notes), whose inside fastball found itself over the left-field fence almost as quickly as it took to travel from Marcum's hand to Pujols' bat. After admiring his handiwork for a moment, Pujols went into a home run trot that he savored. His next three at-bats went double, double, double, like an In-N-Out order taken one step too far, and when Pujols grounded out in his final plate appearance, the lifeless crowd at Miller Park arose for one final cheer, of the Bronx variety, before returning to lament what Pujols had done to their Brewers.
"He's a special player," Morgan said. "Can't keep a guy down the whole time. He's going to bust out of it eventually."
Morgan had turned off his alter ego, Tony Plush, for a few moments. This was embarrassing – for the Brewers and for him. The risk of having a big mouth is getting punched in it, and Pujols was Mike Tyson to Morgan's Peter McNeeley. He sprayed balls to all fields – left, then center, then right-center, then a ground-rule double down the right-field line, which was the first of six consecutive hits off Brewers reliever Kameron Loe(notes) in the four-run seventh inning that turned a 7-2 advantage into a blowout.
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Prior to the game, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa threw out a blind prediction that Pujols was primed for a big game. Pujols swore he didn't tell La Russa how he felt, and his teammates said Marcum wasn't tipping his pitches, the sort of thing that might incline a manager to make such a forecast. Perhaps it's as simple as La Russa knowing Pujols – knowing that he was due, that he felt it an obligation to succeed the day after hitting into a momentum-killing double play in Game 1.
"You learn from the mistakes that you make," Pujols said. "[Sunday] was so tough. Going to bed, I was thinking some of the opportunities I could've helped our ballclub to win. You know what, man? I turned that page. [Monday] was a new day. What could I do to help my ballclub to win the game today?"
Well, his 14th career playoff home run – eighth all-time, with Babe Ruth next on the list – set the tone. His 14th, 15th and 16th doubles, which tied him for 10th with Alex Rodriguez(notes) and his former teammate, Jim Edmonds(notes), reinforced that St. Louis' lineup turns dangerous when he's hitting. And the little smirk he carried around reminded everyone that a bat that does the talking is far more valuable than a mouth doing the same.
Pujols never cracked back at Morgan, and that was the reality of this feud: there never was one. A real feud takes two engaged parties. Morgan latched onto the best player in baseball and tried to piggyback on his name. Pujols barely acknowledged Morgan publicly, like he was telling the fly to shoo.
Meanwhile, he stewed at the idea that a guy who had been dumped by two of the losingest organizations in baseball suddenly had the temerity not only to call him Alberta but gloat that the Brewers were headed to the playoffs instead of St. Louis. When the Cardinals snuck in on the last day, they didn't dedicate their October run avenging Morgan. They did relish the possibility of it.
"I don't think really nobody's worried about what I said and what I did and any of that," Morgan said.
On the surface, no. Morgan is not the Cardinals' cause. Winning is. If they happen to take him down – and if he happens to run into a wall in the process – all the better.
"I said what I said," Morgan said. "Let's move on. If they want to take justice on it, so be it."
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Oh, they're glad to do so. While the Brewers contend Morgan is their heart, he's little more than a case of the sniffles to the Cardinals, something that often resolves itself through its own inability to survive. Maybe Morgan, at 31, can turn into an everyday player late in his career and continue to thrive in Milwaukee. "He'd better keep hitting .300," one Cardinal said, "or that act is going to wear thin quick."
Pujols, on the other hand, "is the best player of this generation," Brewers third baseman Jerry Hairston said. And even if he is also on the backside of his career at 31, Pujols still does things other players can't.
"When a guy like Albert goes out there and gets four hits and drives in five runs, it's not like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe what I just saw,' " Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman(notes) said. "If you get that from your 8-hole hitter, you can talk about being open-mouthed. But he's been doing it his whole career. He had a great game [Monday]. He's a great player. Probably one of the greatest ever. It's not that I'm underwhelmed by it. But by the same token, it's Albert Pujols."
Which is to say the king remains king until he is dethroned, and Pujols plans to cede his no time soon. The Cardinals may beat the Brewers. The Brewers may beat the Cardinals. Even if the latter happens, it doesn't change the pecking order in which Morgan should operate. He is what he is and who he is, and when he steps out of line, he invites what Pujols did Monday night, what a king is supposed to do with a jester: laugh at him.
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