The clock ticking loudly in the background of Albert Pujols’s legendary career has, in recent weeks, become a steady drumbeat, providing propulsion and momentum that moves his progress forward even as his days on a playing field wind down.
He is, as ever, no machine, just Albert. And even outside of the significant commercial and nostalgic boosts he’s provided the St. Louis Cardinals this season, he’s also been a shrewd baseball addition who seems to be improving as the longest months drag on.
“I guess that’s why I’m here,” Pujols shrugged Wednesday night when asked about his role as a stabilizer. “They believe I’m able to help this organization, and I’m ready to hit wherever they put me in the lineup.”
In Toronto, that was fourth, playing two consecutive nights at first base while he did so. With Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt unable to enter Canada, manager Oliver Marmol needed a confident, calm nucleus around which to build his team. Even as he admitted that putting Pujols at cleanup against two tough righties may not look good on paper, Marmol commented on the difficulty of the game played between the ears.
He didn’t need someone to be Arenado or Goldschmidt. He needed someone to be themselves, with no hesitation. Pujols was a perfect match.
“That’s what you’re hoping for, is him to step up and be able to carry us at a time when we didn’t have Goldy and Nolan,” Marmol said. “He did exactly that. He knew what was on the line, and that we were going to have to depend on him.
“He’s been in the game for a couple decades because he knows how to do that.”
After a tough June in which he went 6-for-38 with no home runs, Pujols has come roaring back to life in July. Entering Friday’s series opener at Nationals Park, he’s batting .348 with a .630 slugging percentage this month. That includes three home runs and four doubles, with the doubles matching his total from the rest of the season combined.
Moving on up the ladder
In the process, he’s continued to climb up leaderboards and pass by legends, moving past Rogers Hornsby for fourth all-time in hits as a Cardinal and past Stan Musial for third all-time in extra base hits in a career — for anyone, across baseball.
“It’s not about being behind or in front of those guys,” Pujols said. “My job, every day, for 20 years I’ve been doing it is to help every organization that I’ve played for. At the end of the day, if I accomplish those numbers, then it’s great, it’s a bonus. But if I don’t, I think I have enjoyed my career so much, so (many) blessings that God has given me, so I don’t really focus on it.”
From a commercial perspective, it’s hard to imagine a free agent signing which could be more successful than the one-year, $2.5 million deal that Pujols signed in the midst of spring training. Appreciative Busch Stadium crowds have turned out to see him all season, and as he takes his final tour around the league, visiting fans are filling and then rising from seats for much the same reason.
Flattered by Toronto love
Both games in Toronto were briefly interrupted by extended standing ovations, the second of which was longer than the first. Pujols, of course, never played in Toronto. In residence in the American League West, he visited no more often than once every season. And yet, in the presence of this particular greatness for one last, brief moment, Blue Jays fans made a point to offer a poignant salute.
Even the occasionally irascible Pujols lowered the tone of his voice as he mused, “it’s pretty cool, you know?”
“To be back here, for 22 years I have, once or twice, a series during the course of the season,” he said. “It means a lot to appreciate your career by the fans and how they honor you. But you still have to go out there and put that in the past, put it behind and just focus on the game.”
That focus is dialed in. Indeed, Pujols barely flinched when Adam Wainwright, in the midst of his own media scrum, did his best to maximize the volume in his voice when he described Pujols as “pretty old.” The first baseman didn’t flinch.
‘Still a human side to this game’
Marmol will face the difficult proposition of maximizing his on-field return from Pujols as the Cardinals fight for a place in the postseason, balancing it as he has all year with a desire to honor the player, honor the game.
For now, the conversation gets a great deal less complicated. Pujols is hitting. That answers any and all questions anyone might have about why he’s out there.
“You try to figure out who can slow the game down enough to give you that at bat, and a quality at bat,” Marmol said of leaning on Pujols with the lineup thinned. “There’s still a human side to this game. That’s part of it.”
Man, not machine.