On Tuesday night at Busch Stadium, Albert Pujols took us on a ride to 2011.
The Machine became The Time Machine.
— Pujols called his shot, predicting a first-pitch, first at-bat home run in a pregame declaration made to Cardinals manager Oli Marmol. Boom. Done. Career home run No. 680, and his 446th as a Cardinal. Is anybody surprised by this?
– The Time Machine delivered, just as he did for 11 seasons in St. Louis at the start of his career. Just like the old days, the glory days, he made 40,000 bounce from their seats to stand and shout and file away the memory in their minds and hearts. Busch Stadium hadn’t trembled like this since last summer, when Pujols rocked a homer as a Dodger.
– The tens of thousands of fans pleaded for a curtain call, and Pujols answered by bounding out of the dugout to turn the occasion into a celebration. He added a sweet touch by wrapping his arms around himself, the best that he could, as a sign of embrace to all the fans.
– There would be two Pujols singles after the homer, and two runs scored on the night, and a 6-5 victory for the home team over the Kansas City Royals. Oh, yes. The Royals. Pujols’ hometown team. The franchise that wouldn’t draft him. And he’s made them pay ever since. It was revenge 20 years ago, and it’s revenge now. In 106 regular-season career games against the Royals, Pujols has a .320 average, .974 OPS, 26 homers, 25 doubles and 88 runs batted in.
– After a bummer of a loss to the Pirates on Sunday, and a rainout on Monday, Pujols sealed the sky over Busch Stadium, warmed up the good vibrations of yesteryear, and gave his team and his fans an emotional lift.
This is what baseball heroes do.
This is Albert Pujols.
It was a long way home for the second-greatest hitter in franchise history, and the encore was years in the making. But for a few seconds, as Pujols toured the bases, we could lose ourselves in the scene, and trot with him, moving happily into history, and going back to the time when Albert Pujols owned the town as the biggest and baddest hitter of them all. He’s older, and parts of his game have faded with age. But we know that he’s still highly capable, because we saw him turn 2022 into 2011 in an instant.
Opposing left-handed pitchers will cringe when he sets up in the batter’s box, and Cardinal fans will clasp their hands and make a wish, and when Pujols swings to send the baseball traveling through the years, we’ll smile and know that it’s still a special thrill thrill to see him hit a home run. He adds flair by standing there for a few seconds to admire his work, and striking a pose worthy of his future statue outside Busch Stadium.
History is such a precious part of baseball’s appeal, and Pujols’ presence for one more season is something to treasure. He’s the living living monument among us, bringing the generations together. And in an imperfect sport, Pujols gave us a perfect home run on Tuesday night. Baseball is best when it comes with something worthy of our affection.
“Love is the most important thing in the world,” the late Yogi Berra once said. “But baseball is pretty good, too.”
Pujols Part II: Including Tuesday’s win, here’s what Pujols has done against left-handed pitching since the start of last season: .305 average, .344 onbase percentage, .624 slugging percentage, .968 OPS and a home run every 10 at-bats. And there are people out there who have convinced themselves that he’s nothing but a novelty act, brought here to entice fans to bring their dollars to the ballpark so Bill DeWitt can buy another vacation home or something? Good grief.
Pujols Part III: With the home run, Pujols has 1,368 extra-base in his MLB career. He needs 10 more to move ahead of Stan Musial for third place in big-league history. Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds rank first and second respectively. Pujols is up to 6,048 career total bases; he needs 33 to move above Willie Mays and into third place all-time behind Aaron and Musial.
As The Rotation Turns: Well, that was certainly a disappointing first start by Dakota Hudson, who lasted only four innings against the Royals. Hudson threw 70 pitches; only 38.6 percent were strikes. After his teammates gave him a 3-0 lead after one inning, Hudson immediately squandered it by getting socked for two homers that leveled the score at 3-3. Three earned runs and two homers in four innings is a downer.
Adam Wainwright controlled the Pirates for six shutout innings on opening day, only to have Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz and Hudson take the ball and give up a combined 12 earned runs in 10.2 innings over the next three starts. That’s an average of only 3.5 innings per start from Mikolas, Matz and Hudson. And they were pelted for a combined three homers, three doubles, a .623 slugging percentage and an ERA of 10.12.
This will not do, and presumably the non-Waino performances will improve. But last season’s extreme rotation trauma made a lasting and disturbing impression, and the front office wasn’t aggressive in preventing it from happening again.
With Jack Flaherty (shoulder) on the IL, and three substandard starts in a row, the rotation-related anxiety is understandable. Going into spring training the STL rotation was widely viewed as a potential liability by media and fans, but the front office was unfazed. So yes, I’m going to talk about a shaky rotation until the rotation shows us that it’s solid. And if this group can join Wainwright and pitch well, I’ll be happy to offer praise. But after last year’s debacle, every start will be scrutinized – be it early in the season, later in the season, or at any point during the season. The starters had better get used to it.
And for those who would say I’m overreacting … yeah, well, that’s what I heard last season when the Cardinals’ starters opened with a 6.48 ERA during the first month and went into the All-Star break ranked 10th among 15 NL teams in ERA.
With Wednesday’s Rainout: The Cardinals have updated their rotation plans for the four-game series in Milwaukee. In order: Wainwright, Mikolas, Matz and either Hudson or Jordan Hicks on Sunday.
Jordan Hicks & The Bullpen: The Royals were down 6-3 but made it close (6-5) on an RBI single off Nick Wittgren in the seventh, and a solo homer off Genesis Cabrera in the eighth. Before that, Hicks relieved Hudson and put up zeroes in the fifth and sixth innings with an impressive array of sinkers and sliders. And Giovanny Gallegos put down the Royals in order in the ninth for his first save of the season. This bullpen isn’t infallible. The relievers will give up runs. But the bullpen crew has a 1.86 ERA in 19.1 innings and hasn’t blown a lead. That ERA was tied for fifth best in the bigs through Tuesday. One thing to like so far: a 50 percent ground ball rate. One thing to work on: fewer walks. The relievers’ 10.5% walk rate is too high.
Early Birds: The Cardinals scored three runs in the first inning Tuesday on a two-run jack by Nolan Arenado and a solo launch by Pujols. The Cards have scored in the first inning (eight total) in each of their first four games. The first-inning offense includes 11 hits in 22 at-bats, six walks, three homers, three doubles, a sac fly and a stolen base. The first-inning slash line? How about a .500 average, .538 OBP, 1.045 slug and a 1.584 OPS?
However, There’s This Part: OK, the Cardinals have started fast in games by jumping on opponents in the early innings. But what the heck is going on after the third inning? In their four games the Cardinals are batting .151 from the fourth inning on with no homers, a .266 slugging percentage,weak .511 OPS and only four total runs scored.
Andrew Knizner’s Lightning Bolt: When the backup catcher pulled a three–run homer into the stands in the bottom of the fourth to crack a 3-3 tie, the Cardinals’ win expectancy jumped from 55 percent to 85%. Now that’s impact. I’m happy for Knizner. The Cardinals drafted him in the 7th round back in in 2016 because scouts were impressed by his bat as a multi-position player at N.C. State. Knizner put up good numbers at every step of the minors including a .445 slugging percentage and .813 OPS at Double A, and a .453 slug and .815 OPS at Triple A.
But Yadier Molina’s backups don’t get a chance to play regularly, and that makes it especially difficult to generate momentum – and consistency – offensively. That said, Knizner had a career-high 185 plate appearances in 2021, and didn’t do much with the opportunity. (Batted .174 with a poor .517 OPS.)
The offense is there, and Knizner will have more of a chance to show it if he plays more often in 2022. When Carson Kelly served as the No. 2 to Molina, he batted .154 with a .415 OPS in 63 games. The dude never had more than 69 at-bats in a season as a Cardinal, but for some odd reason a percentage of fans expected him to be Johnny Bench and whined when he wasn’t. Though limited by injuries, Kelly has done much better (.757 OPS) in 252 games with Arizona after being the key piece in the Paul Goldschmidt trade.
Knizner is still only 27. He may not turn out to be what the Cardinals thought he would be, but there’s still time to build a solid MLB career.
The St. Louis Infield: Leads the majors in slugging (.691) and OPS (1.130) and is second in onbase percentage (.439) and batting average (.327.) That is all.
Nolan Arenado: No wonder why the Cards infielders are off to such an impressive start offensively. The third baseman is going crazy at the plate. Arenado is tied for first in the NL in homers (3), leads the league with 9 RBI, is first in slugging percentage (1.188), first in total bases, first in extra-base hits and ranks second in OPS (1.658.) Arenado’s .438 batting average and .471 onbase percentage aren’t bad, either.
Home On The Driving Range: More fun with small samples! It’s early … of course it’s early. But the Cardinals are fighting back in the battle against Busch Stadium. Through the first four home games the Cards have a .271 average, .347 onbase percentage and .527 slugging percentage for a .874 OPS.
The barrage has included nine doubles and eight homers; 48.5 percent of their hats have gone for extra bases. They’re also walking at a high rate (10%) striking out at a lower rate (17.3%) and batting .321 with a 1.002 OPS with runners in scoring position. They’ve bruised pitchers from Pittsburgh and Kansas City for an average of 6.25 runs per game.
Last season the Cardinals were frail at home, batting .241 with a .310 OBP and .385 slugging percentage. Their .696 OPS at Busch Stadium ranked 27th in the majors among home teams. And they ranked 29th with an average of 3.79 runs per home game.
The baseballs are carrying. Through four home games the Cardinals have homered every 16.1 at-bats. Last season? The Cards homered every 33.7 at-bats at Busch.
Through Tuesday the Cardinals led the NL in batting average, slugging and OPS and were third in OBP. They also had the top OPS with runners in scoring position among teams that had at least 10 RISP plate appearances.
It’s early, way early. And the Cardinals have pounced on bad pitching. Let’s see how this goes as the home games pile up. Only 77 more to go in the regular season.
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.