When the bat of Albert Pujols caught fire in early August, and it appeared the St. Louis Cardinals slugger would make an improbable 11th-hour run to 700 homers, Mark McGwire began tracking his long-ago teammate through the MLB app and tuning into as many Pujols plate appearances as he could.
“His at-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 homers in a St. Louis uniform in 2001. “This guy is a born hitter.”
But it wasn’t until McGwire returned to Busch Stadium for Matt Holliday’s Cardinals Hall-of-Fame induction ceremony on Aug. 27 that he truly grasped — literally, not figuratively — how Pujols, in his 22nd and final big league season, has recaptured the thunder in his swing.
“When I saw Albert, I gave him a hug, and it’s like, you know when you hug someone, and you just go, ‘Oh man, I don’t want to mess with that guy?’ ” McGwire said in a phone interview. “When you hug Albert, you go, ‘I’m not gonna mess with him because he’s strong as s—.’ He hasn’t lost any strength.”
Dodgers fans will get an up-close look at what McGwire and much of baseball has marveled at for the past two months when Pujols and the National League-leading Cardinals begin a three-game series in Chavez Ravine on Friday night.
Pujols hit the 698th homer of his career, a two-run, score-tying shot that traveled 427 feet to left field in a win over the Cincinnati Reds in St. Louis last Friday night.
Pujols did not homer in this week’s three-game series against the San Diego Padres in Petco Park, but with two more long balls, he will join Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) as the only players in major league history to hit 700 home runs.
As much as Cardinals fans would love for No. 700 to 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 provide a fitting backdrop for the milestone shot.
It was here that Pujols revitalized a career many thought was over when the Angels released him in early May 2021 after Pujols produced zero playoff wins over the course of his 10-year, $240-million contract, and where his flagging 2022 season got a booster shot.
Pujols was baseball’s most-feared right-handed hitter in the first 11 years of his Hall-of-Fame career in St. Louis, where he hit .328 with a 1.037 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 445 homers and 1,329 RBIs and was nicknamed “the Machine” because of his metronome-like production.
Though he hit his 500th and 600th homers and collected his 3,000th hit and 2,000th RBI for the Angels, several lower-body injuries and age sapped the first baseman of his prodigious power, and his production plummeted. He hit .256 with a .758 OPS and averaged 24 homers and 85 RBIs in nine full seasons in Anaheim.
Less than a week after he was released, Pujols, then 41 and with 667 career homers, signed with the Dodgers. The move to a World Series contender — even in a lesser role — seemed to “rekindle his love for the game,” McGwire said. “It got the fire in him again.”
Pujols hit .254 with a .759 OPS, 12 homers and 38 RBIs in 85 games for the Dodgers, including a .953 OPS against lefties, and relished his role as a mentor to his new teammates, who affectionately called him “Tio Albert” and sought his bear hugs in the dugout.
“I saw a different Albert last year when he got here,” said Dodgers third-base coach Dino Ebel, an Angels coach from 2006 to 2018. “I know things didn’t turn out the way he wanted with the Angels, but when he got here, he was happy. He was a different guy.
“He knew his role. He accepted his role. The team bought in on him. He bought in on the system, the culture. He fit right in, and I think it just made a difference in Albert and the way he's ending his career now.”
Pujols has received regular text messages and FaceTime calls from former Dodgers teammates offering encouragement during his pursuit of 700 and is looking forward to reconnecting with them this weekend.
“It was awesome,” Pujols said of his Dodgers stint. “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's what 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 considered something of a goodwill gesture by the Cardinals, so the local icon could get a few at-bats against left-handed pitchers and enjoy a farewell tour with fellow Cardinals veterans Adam Wainwright, 41, and Yadier Molina, 40.
Relegated to a platoon designated hitter and pinch-hitter role, the odds of Pujols clubbing the 21 homers he needed for 700 seemed long. Age and injuries had taken a toll. Pujols hit more than 21 homers once in his previous five seasons.
His tepid start to 2022 didn’t fuel much hope. Pujols had a season-low .189 average, .601 OPS, four homers and 17 RBIs in his first 43 games — and the team’s first 87 games — through July 4.
But a legacy selection to the July 19 All-Star Game and a surprising run to the semifinals of the home run derby in Dodger Stadium, where his fellow All-Stars engulfed him in a group hug during the derby, seemed to rejuvenate Pujols.
Pujols warmed in late July and took off in early August. In 38 games since Aug. 10, Pujols has hit .313 (35 for 112) with a 1.071 OPS, 12 homers — the third-most in baseball in that span — and 29 RBIs to push his season average (.261) and OPS (.845) to heights he hadn’t seen since 2012, when he hit .285 with an .859 OPS, 30 homers and 105 RBIs in his first year with the Angels.
“It was a feel-good story for him to go back to St. Louis, and I don't think anybody had any expectations,” Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “And then he was just so energized at the All-Star Game. It was so cool to see him being youthful and doing the derby and all that stuff. A little bit of spark was lit for him.”
Pujols has always crushed left-handers — he has a career .301 average and .954 OPS and is hitting .352 with a 1.154 OPS against them this season— but he’s been hitting right-handers so well that “it’s hard to take his bat out of the lineup,” Cardinals bench coach Skip Schumaker said.
Schumaker, a former utility man who played with Pujols from 2005-2012, said the origins of Pujols’ home run barrage run deeper than the derby. A 102.5-mph lineout to left field against Braves left-hander Will Smith in the seventh inning of a July 7 game in Atlanta may have been the spark.
“He got back to the dugout and said, ‘Man, I think I found something,’ ” Schumaker said. “He eliminated a move in how he loads his hands, got shorter to the ball, and something clicked to where he felt kind of like he was back in the 2005-2010 era. I think he got to try it out 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 that month marked only the third time in his career he slugged .800 or better in a calendar month.
He hit five homers in one five-game span from Aug. 14-20, his march toward 700 turning into a sprint and fueling his team’s push from a half-game behind Milwaukee in the NL Central at the All-Star break to a 7 1/2-game lead.
“I don't know how many of those games in August we would have won without him, honestly,” Wainwright said. “It's crazy to say that because we have the No. 1 MVP candidate [Paul Goldschmidt] and the No. 2 MVP candidate [Nolan Arenado] on our team, and Albert has carried us. He was one of, if not the, biggest reason why we took the big lead in our division.”
Pujols, who is six years older than Cardinals first-year manager Oliver Marmol, initially sneered at a question about his second-half power surge.
“Power surge? OK, I guess I didn't have any power, so I had to search for some,” Pujols said during the Padres series. “Nothing really [changed]. I took the swing I had in spring training into the season knowing if I trust my process, like I always have for 23 years as a professional, sooner or later it's gonna come around.
“Why it took this long, I don't know. I think God has his ways to turn things around. But for me, it was just trying to really repeat the same swing that I've been doing for my whole career.”
Pujols’ run at 700 has been overshadowed by New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge’s Triple Crown pursuit and building of what might be the greatest single-season offensive performance in baseball history, but by no means does that diminish Pujols’ accomplishments.
There have been some 22,800 big league players, but only three are in baseball’s exclusive 700 Club, with Pujols knocking on the door, no matter how much he downplays the pursuit.
“I don't chase numbers — I didn't chase 100 [homers], and I’ve got 698 of them,” Pujols said. “What I’m chasing is another [World Series] ring for the City of St. Louis and our fans. That’s why I signed back this year.”
The Cardinals have 11 games left, their final six against the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates. If Pujols finishes the season stuck at 698 or 699 homers, there will be no attempt to reach 700 in 2023.
Despite putting up second-half numbers that Wainwright acknowledges are “kind of surprising for a 42-year-old,” the Machine will be shut down this winter. Pujols said in March that this will be his last season, and he reiterated this week that his plans haven’t 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 with a good year or have success, it was going to change my mind,” Pujols said.
“But when I say something, I will do it. So I'm gonna retire after the World Series, and I'm gonna enjoy my life, my career, my family and everything I’ve accomplished in this game.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.