THE REDBIRD REVIEW

I’ve been writing and talking about St. Louis sports since 1985. I’ve been privileged to witness many wonderful teams, performances and moments. It’s been a blast. I’m a lucky dude.

The most memorable experiences include the Blues’ incredible run to the Stanley Cup in 2019, multiple NL pennants and World Series championships by the Cardinals, David Freese in the 2011 postseason, the 1999 “Greatest Show” Rams that won the Super Bowl.

I’ve covered Hall of Famers including Ozzie Smith, Whitey Herzog, Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Orlando Pace, Marshall Faulk, Brett Hull, Bernie Federko, Al MacInnis, and Chris Pronger.

But nothing quite tops the unique experience of Albert Pujols returning to St. Louis for a Farewell Season Tour 2022. There’s really never been anything like it, at least not in St. Louis.

In 1999 Kurt Warner was the underdog story of all underdog stories – they even made a movie about it – and no one would have envisioned it unless they actually saw the former grocery-store worker and Arena League quarterback lead a chronic-loser NFL franchise to a shocking Super Bowl title despite never having started an NFL regular-season game before ‘99.

If you believe that Warner’s hero-from-nowhere epic is the most unlikely single-season performance in STL sports history, I won’t push back at ya.

I covered all of Kurt’s games in ‘99 — all the way through his record 414-yard, two-touchdown, game-MVP heroism in the Rams’ victory in Super Bowl 34. And many years later, I presented the case for Warner in the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection-committee meeting. He was phenomenal in a totally unexpected superstar turn in 1999.

And what are we seeing with Pujols this summer?

It’s one of a kind.

Including another event that we’ve never seen before: a pinch-hit grand slam home run, the first of his career, in Thursday’s 13-0 romp over the Colorado Rockies at Busch Stadium. The magic in his bat is relentless.

After 11 seasons in St. Louis, Pujols signed with another team, wasn’t here for 10 years, and now he’s back – considerably older, but still highly capable, and walloping baseballs with as much force as in his nascent days of a surefire Hall of Fame career. You’re dang right that he’s back … and that includes his long–ago Prince Albert offense.

Pujols was 21 in his first season (2001) with the Cardinals, and now he’s doubled up on that and is a Cardinal again at 42. He’s still sending home runs into orbit in 2022, much as he did in 2001.

Warner’s astonishing rise to the top of his profession in one year – after being a nobody, grinding away in football’s minor leagues – was viewed as virtually impossible when the ‘99 season began. But after hand injuries caused a demise phase in Warner’s career, he had to go to the NY Giants and Arizona Cardinals to heal up and climb back to the top. But after his absence from the stage, Warner’s uplifting comeback occurred in the Valley of the Sun.

After striking it big in the NFL before fading out for a while, Kurt didn’t spend 10 seasons away from St. Louis as Pujols did. And Warner didn’t come back here to close his career; he retired as an Arizona Cardinal.

Pujols is finishing his career in St. Louis. His odyssey went full circle. He gave St. Louis the 11 best seasons of his career, and reappeared many years later to give St. Louis the best of what he is now. And that’s a lot. He is a treasure.

Pujols began his supreme career here at age 21, and now he’s finalizing what he started by giving us an unexpectedly charming and joyous season to remember him by. And there is nothing awkward about this. In terms of his performance, we have no reason to shake our heads and quietly question the wisdom of this reunion. The Cardinals are hot-hot-hot and in first place, he’s rising on the statistical leaderboards, and our baseball town is collectively happier than it’s been for a while.

Pujols is not weak or burned out. His energy is palpable. It has recharged the dugout, the clubhouse, and the game-day environment at Busch Stadium. His powers are intact, from the mighty swing, to his personality and positive influence and the radiant Pujols smile that makes every fan and teammate twinkle.

Pujols isn’t limping or hunched over or playing out the days as a faint ghost of himself. His physique is that of the younger and leaner Pujols, and he’s as hungry as ever. He isn’t a figure of pity; opponents fear his presence. When Pujols comes to the plate, the many who revere him have no reason to turn away in despair as if to shield ourselves from his understandable but depressing futility.

The Pujols at-bats are major events, must-watch appointments that leave us fired up for more. We can’t wait until he’s back in the box for his next time up and the chance to generate the latest thrill and make a new memory.

That’s a large part of why this is such a unique experience: a cosmic, unexpected twist makes this so much more than the standard old-athlete-takes-final-bow trope.

Please excuse my language.

But Albert Pujols is kicking ass.

And we did not see this coming.

Pujols is 42.

When agreeing to a one-year contract with the Cardinals several months ago in spring training, Pujols was considered to be well past his expiration date as an elite hitter, having produced at a below-average level from 2017 through 2021.

After becoming one of the all-time great hitters in his 11 seasons in the majors, all with the Cardinals, he signed a free-agent contract with the Angels and played in a SoCal base for the Angels and Dodgers over a 10-season period.

After 10 mostly difficult and disappointing years away from his spiritual baseball home in St. Louis, he returned to the spot where it began in 2001. One more sentimental, deeply meaningful season with his longtime buddies Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright — his partners in leading the Cardinals to colossal heights when all were younger.

And what was expected of Pujols in 2022? We weren’t asking for much – just do some damage against left-handed pitching, and warm the hearts of the best fans in baseball just by being there. If he batted .220 and banged eight or nine homers … well, that’s OK.

Just having Pujols wearing the classic uniform with the iconic logo would be a source of happiness. Sports are supposed to provide entertainment, and the renewal of the Pujols-STL relationship just felt like the right thing to do. So close out your screen with the advanced metrics and enjoy the celebratory valediction.

We’ve received so much more.

Ten years after, Pujols has picked up in St. Louis where he left off in St. Louis.

As fans Pujols gave us the finest seasons of his career – and now, lo and behold, he’s doing it again. One more time. This mang is not staggering to the finish line.

Since July 10, among MLB batters with at least 70 plate appearances, here’s a rundown of where Pujols stands statistically:

  • 2nd in batting average (.375) to Freddie Freeman.
  • 2nd in slugging percentage (.766) to Aaron Judge.
  • 2nd in OPS (1.194) to Judge.
  • 5th in onbase percentage (.429.)

Since the All-Star break Pujols is batting .415 with a .467 onbase percentage, .854 slugging percentage, 1.320 OPS, five homers, and 15 RBIs. And when he’s played since the All-Star break the Cardinals are 12-3.

Going back to STL’s 6-1 win at Toronto on July 27, Pujols has two doubles, five home runs and 14 RBI … in only 32 at-bats.

Goodness.

Pujols is not acting his age.

But he is aging extremely well.

Using OPS+, here are the top age-42 season batting performances since 1900 … based on a minimum 215 plate appearances.

Keep in mind that a 100 OPS+ is average:

1.   Barry Bonds, 169 OPS+ in 2007
2.   Carlton Fisk, 134 in 1990
3.   Albert Pujols, 132 in 2022
4.   Luke Appling, 125 in 1949
5.   Honus Wagner, 121 in 1916
6.   Andres Galarraga, 118 in 2003
7.   Sam Rice,  116 in 1932
8.   Carl Yastrzemski, 111 in 1982
9.   Hank Aaron, 102 in 1976
10. Stan Musial, 101 in 1963

I always smile when I see who Pujols is hanging with. Not now … but in history.

Just a few examples: His 690 homers are fifth all time, putting him in a top-five group that includes Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth. He’s third in career RBI behind Aaron and Ruth. And third in total bases behind Aaron and Musial. And Pujols soon will pass Musial in total bases and move into second place all-time. Pujols is fifth in doubles with only Tris Speaker, Pete Rose, Musial and Ty Cobb ahead of him.

And you wonder why the young Cardinals are chasing him all over the dugout, laughing all the way, when Pujols launches a home run? I mean, this is like being able to go back in time to be teammates with Aaron, Ruth, Cobb, Musial, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, etc.

“I’ve still got to make sure I pinch myself that I’m actually his teammate,” second-year outfielder Lars Nootbaar said.

Pujols isn’t a hologram. What he’s doing is real. Twenty-one years later nothing much has changed except for his age. I’m thinking about a question posed in the legendary country-music song, “Will the circle be unbroken?”

With Albert Pujols the answer is “YES.”

Great as a Cardinal at age 21.

Great as a Cardinal again at age 42.

We’ll never see anything like this – or like him – in Our Town again.

Pujols just skipped the part where he’s supposed to be the old guy that can’t live up to the younger version of himself. But he would not succumb to the inevitable. Noth without a fight.  As Walt Disney once said, “Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional.”

Pujols isn’t in decline. He’s just declining to grow old. He’s young again, if even for only a while.

NOTES ON A SCORECARD

Accounting Department: After sweeping the Rox the Cardinals are 40–21 at home this season (.656) and have won 29 of their last 40 (.725) at Busch Stadium … the recent domination at Busch Stadium is mighty impressive; the Cardinals are 13-1 in their last 14 home games, 16-3 in their last 19 home games, 18-4 in their last 22 home games, and 27-8 in their last 35 at Busch … in addition the Cardinals have swept four of their last five opponents that played a series in St. Louis.

Overall the Cardinals are 12-3 in their 15 games since the trade deadline and are tied with the Dodgers (also 12-3) for the best record in baseball since the deadline. And in MLB, only the Dodgers (13-3) have a better record than St. Louis (12-3) in August. The Cardinals (21-9) also have the second-best winning percentage in the majors (.700) since July 10.

The Cardinals (66-51) lead the second-place Brewers by three games. The streaking Redbirds have moved up to fourth overall in winning percentage (.564) among National League, ahead of the Phillies and Padres and behind the Dodgers, Mets and Braves.

Adam Wainwright, Still Formidable. Seven shutout innings in Thursday’s 13-0 win over the Rockies. Only three hits allowed. No walks. Seven strikeouts. Nearly 41 years old, Waino is up to 193 career wins and is more durable than most starting pitchers, ranking 4th in the majors with 150.1 innings. He has a 2.11 ERA at Busch Stadium in 13 starts. His overall ERA for the season (3.11) is better than the earned-run averages posted by Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber, Kevin Gausman, Robbie Ray, Yu Darvish – and many others. Fun stat: Wainwright has a 0.75 ERA this season in his nine officially credited wins.

Leadoff Spot, Perking Up: Manager Oli Marmol’s sharp decision to implement an unofficial platoon-split matchup system at the top of the lineup is paying off. Marmol has been using the left-swinging Lars Nootbaar at leadoff against right-handed pitchers, with Dylan Carlson in the first spot against lefty pitchers. (Carlson, a switch-hitter, is stronger against LH pitching.) Through July the Cardinals ranked 22nd in the majors with a .297 leadoff-slot onbase percentage. But so far in August St. Louis ranks 11th in the majors with a .348 leadoff OBP. And that leadoff onbase percentage is .500 over the past seven games.

Toots For Noot: After a slow start to the season – mostly because of a lack of opportunity and a couple of stays in the minors – Nootbaar’s OPS+ is up to 119 on the season … which means he’s 19 percent above league average offensively. Since July 5 Nootbaar is batting .313 with an excellent .434 onbase percentage, .565 slug and 1.000 OPS. His onbase skills are increasingly evident, and he’s also popped for plenty of power – with four homers, two triples, five doubles and 15 RBI in his last 81 at-bats. And this season Nootbaar has been credited with three defensive runs saved by Fielding Bible two in right field, and one in left field.

Rotation Elation: Over the last eight games Cards starting pitchers have combined for a 1.74 ERA, allowing exactly two runs in four games and one of no runs in the other four games. The starters have faced 195 batters over this time and limited them to a .192 average and .499 OPS – with only two home runs and five other extra-base hits.

Beware The Series At Arizona: This could be a challenging weekend for the Cardinals in Phoenix. Though the Diamondbacks are only 55-63 overall this season, they have a winning record at home (32-29) and have won four consecutive home series, going 10-3 in those games. The Dbacks have also won six of their last seven series at home, going 15-8 … Arizona comes in with an 8-4 record in their last 12 (home or away) and are 15-11 since the All-Star break and 10-7 in August.

The Cardinals (and Pujols) will see lefty starters in the first two games of the series (Tommy Henry and Madison Bumgarner) and then have to hit against one of the NL’s best starting pitchers, Merrill Kelly, in Sunday’s finale. Kelly is 10-5 with a 2.81 ERA this season and has a 1.64 ERA in his last nine starts. The Cardinals will counter (in order) with Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson and Jose Quintana.

It’s Time To Win On The Road: The Cards are a yucky 26-30 in games played away from Busch Stadium this season. That’s pertinent because the Redbirds will play 11 of their next 14 games on the road, starting with the series at Arizona. After three in AZ, the Cardinals go to Chicago for five games against the Cubs in four days, stop at home for three vs. the Braves, then visit Cincinnati for three.

Between now and Sept. 12 the Cardinals will play 21 of their 24 games against teams with losing records. This should be a positive section of schedule for the Cardinals; they’re 38-30 against losing-record opponents this season. According to Tankathon, the Cardinals have the easiest remaining schedule in the NL and the second-easiest remaining schedule in the majors. The Cards’ remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .456.

Thanks for reading and I hope you all have a fantastic weekend …

–Bernie

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 show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.

“Seeing Red,” my weekly podcast on the Cardinals with Will Leitch, is available on multiple platforms including Apple and Spotify. Please subscribe.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

Please email your “Ask Bernie” questions to BernScoops@gmail.com

All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

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.