The NL Championship Series is defying expectations, assumptions, scripting, and form. The fate of the Braves and the Dodgers changes by the day, the game, or even just a mere inning. This makes you believe in everything, and believe in nothing.
There are exceptions.
There is Albert Pujols, who played an overlooked role in the Dodgers’ must-have win for survival and revival in NLCS Game 5.
You can believe in Pujols, who played his first postseason game for the Cardinals as a 21-year-old back in 2001. And here is — bat still raised and feet firmly planted — in the October postseason theater at age 41.
Normally I’d express feelings of surprise over seeing Pujols being Pujols two decades later. But we know better than that. We know that nothing is normal about The Mang’s career. We should never be surprised by The Great Pujols.
I’ll return to the celebration of the October Pujols in a bit …
First: what a series!
The Dodgers messed up and lost Game 2 in Atlanta. With a chance to take a 3-0 series lead, the Braves came to Dodger Stadium and blew a late lead Tuesday in Game 3, and the Dodgers ambushed their way to a startling 6-5 win.
In Wednesday’s Game 4, the Braves weren’t supposed to beat LA’s 20-game winner Julio Urias or shut the Dodgers down with a parade of relievers from start to finish. But — of course — the Braves went on the attack at Chavez Ravine and delivered a 9-2 beatdown.
This put the Atlanta gang up 3-1 in the best-of-seven NLCS, and on the verge of putting the Dodgers away Thursday night. The slumping, injury-damaged and pitching-jumbled Dodgers surely would be eliminated in Game 5. It seemed so very inevitable.
Ah. Wrong again. We think we know everything, and it turns out that we know nothing. This is postseason baseball. It has absolutely nothing to do with regular-season baseball, and for some reason we forget that important lesson every time the annual playoff tournament rolls around again.
Once we believe everything we are slapped upside the head and forced to think about our failure to understand the traditional October disorder. It is not May baseball, or July baseball, or any other ordinary month of the season.
It is October, the Halloween month. Trick or treat? Both. Damn right. Postseason games are seemingly pulled from the creative minds of Stephen King and W.P. Kinsella. There’s horror stories and danger and mind-blowing plot twists and baseball heroes who suddenly appear to save the season.
Each game is a powder keg. Volatile and scary and unlike any game played before it in a cacophonous series. A series of blasts that explodes to destroy any notion of momentum. There are comebacks, and comedowns. There are hitting sprees and hitting blackouts.
There is October.
It is pure madness.
It is the month of David Freese, you know.
In Thursday’s Game 5, the Dodgers obliterated the Braves and an early 2-0 deficit because Chris Taylor and AJ Pollock somehow combined to wallop five home runs and redeem 10 RBIs.
The Dodgers –competing without injured lineup pieces Max Muncy and Justin Turner, who will not play again this year — pounded out a postseason franchise-record 17 hits.
Without a designated starter available to open the game in that normal sort of way that defined baseball for more than 100 years, the Dodgers marched a sequence of seven relievers to the mound to hold the Braves down.
The outcome was an 11-2 flogging by the Dodgers that has Atlanta fans feeling and fearing the ghostly presence from the 2020 NLCS, when their Braves nervously relinquished a 3-1 series lead by losing three straight games to Los Angeles.
This close encounter now returns to Atlanta, with the Braves clutching a 3-2 series lead with the next game (or two) set for the ballpark in Cobb County. Having two shots at winning one game, the Braves have the probability of logic on their side. But the Dodgers come to Atlanta with the 2020 psychology on their side — and the confidence that permeates a team that’s now won seven consecutive games when facing elimination.
The desperate Dodgers needed major assistance to book a return trip to ATL. Turner went down with a torn hamstring in Game 4. Muncy (wrist) is missing the entire postseason. Trea Turner, Corey Seager and Will Smith were neutralized by untimely hitting slouches.
Taylor was massive. After hitting only .187 with three home runs in 150 at-bats over the final two months of the regular season, he smashed three homers in three at-bats and five innings to plate six RBIs in Game 5.
Taylor knocked the Cardinals out of October with his walk-off, two-run homer in the NL wild-card game. And Taylor hasn’t stopped cranking. He’s been LA’s most fearsome hitter this postseason, batting .364 with a 1.254 OPS, four homers and 12 RBIs.
Pollock started slowly this postseason, batting .182 with nine strikeouts in 22 at-bats. He even got benched a couple of times. But Thursday he tag-teamed with Taylor by clustering two homers and four RBIs.
And then there was Pujols. He linked in with Pollock and Taylor to flatten the Braves. In the first five innings the three Dodgers combined for seven hits in eight at-bats with three homers and six RBIs.
For the game, Pollock, Pujols and Taylor — the fifth, sixth and seventh hitters in the lineup — went 9 for 14 (.643) with a walk, five homers, 10 RBIs and eight runs scored.
Pujols didn’t have any of the homers or RBIs but that didn’t matter. He was the set-up guy, reaching base three times on two singles and a walk. He scored two runs.
Second inning: in his first at-bat Pujols singled off Braves’ lefty starter Max Fried, driving the pitch with a 106.9 exit velocity. Pujols scored on Taylor’s two-run homer that put the Dodgers in the lead, 3-2, for good.
Third inning: Down 0-2 in the count to Fried, Pujols adjusted his approach and purposefully went opposite field, plopping a single into right field. Pollock, who had singled, scooted from first to third base. And Pollock scored on Taylor’s ensuing single to put the Dodgers ahead 4-2.
Fifth inning: Pujols worked Fried for seven pitches, drawing a two-out walk to give the Dodgers another chance to score. After losing the match with Pujols, Fried was pulled from the game. And Taylor ruined reliever Chris Martin’s appearance by popping his second two-homer of the game to boost LA’s lead to 6-2.
Pujols didn’t have the noisiest or most profound moments of this game. But for the Dodgers he was a vital connective tissue. His role in rescuing the Dodgers from the brink of elimination deserves to be more than a footnote.
According to our friend Jayson Stark of The Athletic, only one man older than Pujols (41 years, 278 days) has logged a postseason game in which he reached base at least three times and scored at least two runs. Pete Rose did that for the Phillies in the 1983 NLCS at age 42 years, 176 days.
Pujols on Thursday became only the fifth player in MLB history to reach base three or more times in a postseason game.. This was the 22nd time Pujols has reached base at least three times in a postseason game.
We saw the vintage Pujols at age 41.
We were privileged to see the younger, career-peak Pujols in St. Louis for 11 unforgettable, historical and hugely successful seasons.
This is Albert’s ninth postseason — and his first since 2014, when the LA Angels got swept by the Royals in the ALDS. That’s all. In nine full seasons with the Angels, Pujols made it to only one postseason and played in only three playoff games.
It’s great to see him back on stage.
And it’s been a long time coming.
In the glory days, Pujols led the Cardinals into seven postseasons: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2011.
In the seven postseasons the Cardinals won 40 games, 10 of 15 postseason rounds, three NL pennants and two World Series championships.
No wonder! As a Cardinal put up extraordinary postseason numbers in his 321 plate appearances:
— 88 hits
— 48 walks
— 20 intentional walks
— 18 doubles, 1 triple
— 54 runs
— 18 homers
— 52 RBI
— .330 batting average
— .439 onbase percentage
— .607 slugging percentage
— 1.046 OPS
Pujols’ plans for 2022 are unclear. If he chooses to retire, this will be the last time we’ll watch him play. Thursday’s Game 5 could have been the Last Game. But Pujols did his part to get the Dodgers back to Atlanta with a chance to win twice and advance to the World Series.
Pujols in the World Series for the first time since 2011? Wouldn’t that be fun?
After Thursday’s win, Pujols answered questions from the media and cited the influence of his STL manager Tony La Russa. Specifically, TLR advised the young Pujols to go into every game — including the regular season — with the attitude of “this could be the last game I’ll ever play.”
And “whether I’m in the postseason or regular season, I don’t take anything for granted,” Pujols said. “I take my at-bats, I take my game like it’s the last game of my career.”
After making the postseason seven times in 11 seasons in St. Louis, Pujols has played in only two postseasons over his last 10 years. That makes his October 2021 reappearance more special. He’s cherishing the moments.
He’s on the short list of the greatest players in baseball history. He doesn’t run well, can’t get much done against righthanded pitchers, and doesn’t swing with full-capacity power. But he’s still Albert Pujols.
We know this because he’s batting .333 for the Dodgers this postseason. We know this because he came through for the Dodgers in NLCS Game 5 when they needed him the most.
In that sense, age hasn’t diminished him. He’s still doing Pujols things in big games, just as he did during 11 wonderful baseball seasons in St. Louis.
“Now I’m in a different situation,” Pujols said. “I’m not in the lineup every day. But I am looking and smelling and seeing when my opportunity is going to come. And when it does, I’ll be ready to go.”
When he isn’t playing, Pujols is busy in the dugout. Giving advice to teammates who come seeking knowledge. Encouraging every one of them. Cheering. Smiling. Hugging Cody Bellinger with all his might after the slumping Bellinger rocketed the three-run homer that tied Game 3 in the bottom of the eighth.
Or lifting the hobbled Justin Turner — who had trouble walking on the torn hamstring — in Game 4. Pujols all but carried Turner into the clubhouse. It was a touching scene.
Albert’s humanity is powerful. His love of the game — and the bond he forms with teammates — is perhaps stronger than ever.
Simply because he’s winding down and may never have another chance to absorb every precious day, every meaningful experience, every brotherly exchange with a teammate.
“You can tell he appreciates being on this team; he really enjoys the success of everybody, being the super elder-statesman,” Dodgers ace Max Scherzer said recently.
Growing up in St. Louis, Scherzer graduated from high school during Pujols’ third season with the Cardinals. Max was drafted in 2006, months before Pujols led the Cardinals to their first World Series title since 1982. Scherzer had his first 15-win season in the majors in 2011, the year Pujols won his second World Series with the Cardinals. Pujols was still playing when Scherzer won his first Cy Young in 2013, and still playing when he won his second Cy Young in 2016, and still playing when Max was awarded Cy Young No. 3 in 2017. Pujols was still playing when Scherzer got married, and still playing when Max became a father. Pujols is still playing in 2021, and now Albert and Max are baseball brothers in Dodger blue.
As Scherzer told the New York Times, it’s surreal to be Pujols’ teammate.
“It’s not normal,” Scherzer said. “It’s not normal that I’m playing with Albert Pujols.”
Nothing is normal with Albert Pujols. He isn’t supposed to be playing at age 41, and hitting .333 in his first postseason since 2014. He isn’t supposed to be competing in his first NLCS since 2011. He isn’t supposed to be reaching base three times to rally the Dodgers in a potential go-home Game 5. He isn’t supposed to be doing any of this.
But if you remember who he is, and all that he’s done, then all of this makes sense. It makes perfect sense, all the way around, just because he’s Albert Pujols and his greatness endures.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.