LOS ANGELES – It was a packed house, a big moment and the baseball rose to the sky on a line right towards October.
Albert Pujols looked in a uniform he had never expected to wear from a place he had never imagined he would be. It was teammate Corey Seager’s two-run explosion that ignited the roar that took place one night in Los Angeles last week. And it was Pujols in the Dodgers excavation that led the cheers.
Once, in the days he was known as The Machine, Pujols commanded his own stretch-running spotlight. The big moments now mostly belong to others, while Pujols focuses on what is usually a nightly record experience, strategically placed, against a left-handed relief – but with Max Muncy injured, that could change in Wednesday’s National League wild-card game against St Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium.
The Dodgers signed Pujols in May, four days after his useremonial release of the Los Angeles Angels and last season of a $ 240 million 10-year contract. In his very specific role, he has flourished beyond all expectations, scorched left-handed for a .306 stroke average and ended the season with 12 homers and 38 RBI for the Dodgers.
The teammates rejoice in his joy of life. And now a man who once dominated the Octobers for St. Louis is back in the post-season for the first time since 2014 – and his first test comes against his beloved Cardinals. His frustrating ending with the angels disappears from the story.
“Whatever happened to the angels is what happened to the angels,” said longtime Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. “But as soon as he came here, he embraced his role, which has been so great for us. I think we needed it. We needed the older veteran. He calls himself Tio, we call him Tio, the uncle type who helps everyone beat, but is also a guy who loves you when you do well, smiles in the excavation. ”
See him during a game – smiling, laughing, cheering, occasional laser in the afternoon – and it seems he has found the perfect place for himself.
No doubt near the end of his career that has seen him collect 3,301 hits, 679 home runs and two World Series rings, Pujols, 41, sat in Dodger’s excavation 16 hours after Seager’s explosion and thought of his unexpected return to baseball in October.
“Hey, listen, these guys had a great year whether I was here or not,” Pujols said of the Dodgers’ teammates. “They are just a very good, talented ball club with great management, a great coaching team, good preparation and a great coach.
“I’m just blessed to have this opportunity.”
In his first 11 seasons – all with St. Louis – Pujols reached the playoffs seven times, going to the World Series in three of those years. Since 2011, he has only been back once. He spent most of these October with his wife, Deidre, and their five school-age children at home in Orange County, California. He rarely watches TV, he said, and that includes the playoffs and the World Series if he does not participate.
“I can take a lap or two here or there, but I feel like the low season is a time to refresh and train your mind for things you want to accomplish for the next year,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I watch more Caribbean baseball than the World Series – winter league, that sort of thing.”
Recent Octobers, he said, have been spent with their kids in the pool, biking, going to the beach. The children lobby for trips to their favorite restaurants, and Deidre cooks a lot of food at home.
But this week, Pujols will swap all of this for a fall to in front of packed stadiums.
“You can see that he appreciates being on this team; he really enjoys the success of everyone, when he was the super oldest statesman, “said another Dodgers ace, Max Scherzer, and chuckled.
To put Pujol’s age – 41 – in context, four of this year’s 10 leaders after the season have taken to the field against him in previous Octobers as players: Dodgers’ Dave Roberts and San Francisco’s Gabe Kapler were teammates on Boston Red Sox teams that swept the Pujols and Cardinals in the 2004 World Series. Boston’s Alex Cora was with the Dodgers during a division series in 2004 between Los Angeles and St. Louis. Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell met Pujol’s team twice, in a division series in 2001 when Counsell was with Arizona and in the National League Championship Series in 2011 when he was with the Brewers.
Two other key figures after the season also have extensive October experience with the Pujols: Tony La Russa, now with the Chicago White Sox, managed the Pujols in the player’s 11 seasons with St. Louis. And the coach of the third base in Atlanta, Atlanta, led Texas during one of Pujol’s signature career moments: his three-homer game 3 in the 2011 World Series that helped St. Louis to an exciting seven-game title.
“Was anyone surprised? No, in Washington. “It was Albert Pujols. You make bad places for Albert Pujols then, you were injured. “
The Dodgers signed Pujols when Seager was put on the sidelines with a broken hand and outfielder Cody Bellinger was out with a broken hair in his leg. They envisioned that he would start someone on the first base against leftists, knowing that he would eventually be reduced to a veteran bat from the bench. Tea acquisition of Trea Turner and Scherzer from Washington at the trade deadline in July, along with Seager and others returning to health, has actually cut playing time – but has made him no less valuable.
“He sees a lot of things people don’t see,” said Skip Schumaker, bench coach for the San Diego Padres and a teammate of the Pujols in St. Louis from 2005 to 2011. Schumaker called the Pujols the smartest player he has ever known.
“He helped me as if you would not believe playing right next to me, told me what to look for and by the way gave me the confidence that I could play next to him on a championship team,” said Schumaker. “It goes so far.”
Dodgers starter Gavin Lux has spotted Pujol’s attention to detail, how even in the cage “every little thing matters, he seems to have figured it all out, and I can still see him talking to beating coaches.”
Over the course of eight consecutive NL West titles in a row, the Dodgers have incorporated a very successful mentoring program, which included Chase Utley and David Freese at the end of their pre-Pujols careers.
“The three are very different boys,” Kershaw said. “They are boys I have more respect for than most I have played with. Freeser was just a born leader and the guys followed him. Chase was the same way, but in a calmer way. People wanted to see what he was going to do before they did anything.
“Albert is a little more charismatic, a little more joyful. He is happy, smiling and enjoying the time. It’s almost as if it rejuvenated him in a way, to be on a very good team, to play baseball again. “
Pujols said he well remembers his own mentors when he burst into the majors as a beginner in 2001. Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, “and my Latin guys – Placido Polanco, Edgar Renteria, Fernando Vina.” Then various others that the Cardinals added via trade: The Hall of Famer Larry Walker. Reggie Sanders. Woody Williams.
“I think it would be very selfish if I could not transfer the wisdom they gave me to these young players,” said Pujols. “It’s something I embrace and like. It has given me a new boost in my life. That’s what I’m telling them.
“The last four months here, I’ve been having more fun than I’ve had for a while.”
He has lived through and witnessed enough transition in the game that when his time came, he surprised someone by easily slipping into a new uniform and a new role.
“Listen, it’s not rocket science,” Pujols said. “You’ve seen guys with this kind of role towards the end of their careers. I know I’m not the player I once was. I think everyone knows that. But I think I can still contribute. That’s why I still wear this uniform. Whenever I have the opportunity, whether in the field or in the excavation, I will do my best to help this organization. ”
For the Dodgers, these contributions have proven to be important. On a Sunday afternoon in August, when the Dodgers met the Angels, Robert quickly called Pujols to pinch Justin Turner in the second half after Turner strained his groin. Pujols responded with a two-run homer and played first base the rest of the way. It’s still one of Robert’s favorite moments from this season.
“There are no rights with him,” Roberts said. “And if there is anyone who can feel justified, it’s a first Hall of Famer vote. But he’s just one of the guys.”
Even though he is not the player he once was, Pujols still brings a certain scare factor to the game that is difficult to replicate.
“You pop like lefty, you know he’s going to get out of that outburst,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of expected matches at the end of the inning. “You’re pissed off for sure where he is.”
How old is Pujols, in addition to 41? Scherzer is a St. Louis native who messed with Pujols in high school before graduating in 2003. He was drafted to the University of Missouri in 2006, the year the Cardinals beat Detroit in the World Series. While both men are expected to be inducted into the Hall of Fame one day, Scherzer, 37, is still embarrassed to share a clubhouse with Pujols, his one-time hero.
“It’s not normal,” Scherzer said. “It’s not normal for me to play with Albert Pujols.”
In fact, when the Dodgers were in St. Louis last month, Scherzer took a moment to corral the Pujols for a picture.
“I do not care what you say,” Scherzer said when he told Pujols. “I have to get a picture with you in front of the arch.”
Now, as Pujols enters the off-season for the first time in seven years, he has every opportunity to make it more than just a new photo. Next up is another chapter against who else, the Cardinals.
“It’s crazy,” Pujols said. “You can not even write this down.”