Thank goodness for the three hits and the exhilarating home run that reanimated Busch Stadium and moved the Cardinals forward while taking us back in time.
Thanks for the memories … those that are old and cherished like a fading but endearing family photo … and those that are new and exciting and capable of instantly connecting generations of Cardinal fans.
Thank goodness for Albert Pujols on a sun-cast Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium when the Cardinals were desperate for a baseball hero, desperate for someone to rise from the dugout to lift his downhearted team.
Pujols set up the Cardinals first run of Sunday’s game with a single that put Nolan Arenado in position to score. He sliced Philly’s 3-1 lead to a run in the sixth by launching a home run that traveled at the speed of the sound of happiness. With the score gnarled at 3-3, Pujols stood in the batter’s box to lead off the eighth and sort things out, and untangle the score. His leadoff single turned into the winning run which was scored by the lad, Dylan Carlson, who came in to pinch run for the 42-year-old ball-playing demigod.
Pujols took this game and shook it until it settled on the St. Louis side for a 4-3 victory that eradicated the frustration and altered the mood. Pujols delivered like it was 2006, the first year of the current Busch Stadium. And remember all of those sunny Sunday-afternoon home games when the younger Pujols would do something to make it a fun day at the ballpark? So many good times … and after so many years gone by, he just added another splash of Sunday radiance.
“I don’t expect to play every day, but when I’m in there, I’ll give it everything I’ve got,” Pujols told the media after his Sunday golden-day moments. “I don’t take this game for granted; I’d never do that. I work my butt off to be ready when my name is called, and that’s something I can always take pride in.”
Kindly disregard his double-play grounder that killed a bases-loaded threat. He is human after all. And the wheels can’t spin quickly when he tries to motor to first base. But this was just one instant of disappointment that became nothing in the story of the day – and the story of a career that still has three months to go. Pujols can still bring it on occasion. And that makes each one a special occasion. And when Pujols strikes, it’s like he’s ringing a bell to let Cardinals fans know that they must turn on the TV to see the replay. Because these moments won’t be as plentiful for him, and for us. And they must be treasured, and held close.
Pujols’ three-hit spray made him 5 for 14 in July (.357) with a .643 slugging percentage and 1.018 OPS. He’s done better lately against right-handed pitchers – two more hits Sunday – and still carries an intimidating presence when he steps into the box to face lefties. Sunday’s homer – lined off a Philly lefthander – was his third against a LH this season. And increased his RBI total vs. lefties to 11 in 53 at-bats. For the season, Pujols is thumping LHP for a .302 average, .547 slugging percentage, and an .875 OPS. Based on adjusted runs created (wRC+) Pujols has performed 33 percent above the league average offensively against left-handed pitchers.
This, of course, was one of the reasons for signing Pujols to a one-year contract. And he obviously is a force against left-handed pitching, so he’s delivering on that end. He’s also a beloved presence that delights his teammates – from Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado to the rookies like Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan. He’s a teacher and a motivator and a touchstone.
But … it’s also important for Pujols to produce. The stuff we saw Sunday tones down the unpleasant bromides about his place on the team, and reduces the effectiveness of cheap shots. After what he did Sunday, no one was calling Pujols a statue, a relic, a museum piece, or a circus attraction who is only here to bring in the fans and their money to generate larger revenue for Cardinal ownership. When Pujols has success, it changes the conversation and reduces the ugliness.
And it isn’t just about baseball.
As you undoubtedly know by now, the 784th homer of Pujols’ career became the 1,377th extra-base hit of his career, tying him with Stan Musial for third place in MLB history. Pujols and Musial, locking arms again in a very special brotherhood that brings together their achievements, their legacies, their hallowed places in franchise history … and their friendship.
I can’t get enough of this stuff. Musial passed away in 2013, and he’ll never be forgotten. That said, Pujols’ return to St. Louis has inspired mentions and convos about the one and only Stan the Man. This is yet another valuable contribution from Pujols in his farewell summer. And when Albert speaks of Stan, it touches the heart of those who love being reminded of happy times and the two men who provided so many special days that it’s impossible to count them all.
“Stan means a lot, not only for me and this organization but to this city and country because of the way he served the country and left behind a legacy that will never die,” Pujols said Sunday. “We miss him, and I wish I had spent more time with him.”
Please pardon my awkward transition here … but it would be great for Pujols and catcher Yadier Molina to spend more time together on the field, in the clubhouse. They enhanced the game-day scene at Busch Stadium just by being shoulder to shoulder in the dugout, smiling and talking and debating and imparting advice.
Molina was placed on the IL with knee pain on June 17. Since that day the Cardinals are 9-14 and enduring a drop in defense and offense at the catcher spot. Molina’s offense is limited; he can only do so much. But he’s still more capable with a bat than the guys who are filling in for him. And he still makes a positive difference defensively.
I don’t know what’s going on with Molina, who is spending his down time – his rehab period – in Puerto Rico. Going by their comments, it’s obvious that teammates miss Molina and want him with them, even if he can’t play. The magnitude of Molina’s presence through the years can be quantified in many ways – but mostly through the Cardinals’ massive amount of winning during his brilliant era with the team. Whether he plays or not, Molina is a leader who can push, advise and comfort teammates. It’s a bolder team when he’s around; the collective personality is more complete.
The Cardinals and Molina are remaining mum on the subject, so we can only guess at his condition – physically, emotionally and mentally. We don’t know if a family-related issue or crisis is part of the reason for his stay in Puerto Rico. And for that reason, I won’t rip him. Unless I have a much better understanding of why he’s away – and if this has anything to do with something other than a sore knee – I think it’s unfair to call him out.
Molina has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. And injured players often scatter to their home base to rehab. On the surface, what Molina is doing is hardly radical or improper. But the lack of information only invites gossip and unfounded speculation.
I hope he can return soon … which would signify that everything is at least a little better in his world. The Knee. Baseball. Family. Life.
Pujols and Molina will be together again, but we’ll have to wait for the reunion that comes within the planned 2022 reunion. We’ll have to wait for the possibility of a happy ending. Fingers crossed.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were 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.