'Legendary' Pujols alone in 4th with HR No. 697

Slugger savoring the moment: 'I play every game like it's the last game of my career'

September 11th, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- Maybe the best image to describe how Albert Pujols got to this moment in time isn’t a swing, a bat flip, a celebration or a shiny three-digit graphic. Maybe it’s the view that Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said he takes in every day when he gets to the ballpark.

It’s a 42-year-old Pujols there at the field, ahead of everyone else, preparing himself for that day’s game -- in the cage, in the training room, getting his mind ready. It’s the same way he’s approached the job year after year. And as the years have gone on, the numbers have grown and grown to the point where a feat such as this was possible.

Pujols moved into sole possession of fourth place on MLB’s all-time home run list when he hit the 697th home run of his illustrious career in Sunday afternoon’s 4-3 win over the Pirates. It was his second homer in as many days, as the hunt for the legendary 700-homer club continues.

“There’s impressive, and then there’s unbelievable,” Marmol said. “And what we’re witnessing right now is absolutely legendary.”

Like No. 696, the tiebreaking 697th was clutch. With the Cardinals trailing, 2-1, in the ninth inning, Pujols sent a 2-0 fastball from Chase De Jong to straightaway center field to give St. Louis the lead for the first time in the game.

Pujols, who came into the game tied for fourth with Alex Rodriguez, now trails only three MLB titans in the all-time home run race: Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714). The slugger also pulled within three home runs of 700, something only the three aforementioned sluggers have done in the history of the sport.

“It’s unbelievable,” Cardinals starting pitcher José Quintana said. “It feels like living the dream when you [see] a player like him.”

Pujols announced in Spring Training that this season -- his 22nd at the Major League level -- will be his last one. Throughout his stirring home run surge, Pujols has been adamant that he will retire following the season regardless of how many homers he has.

Pujols’ push toward 700 home runs became a possibility after he got hot over the second part of the season. Back in St. Louis, where he won three MVP Awards and two World Series titles from 2001-11, Pujols looked like a shadow of his former self early in the season when he had just a pair of home runs in April and May and went homerless in June. However, he came alive in July (three home runs) and terrorized pitchers all throughout August (eight home runs). Now, he has three in nine games in September.

A major aspect of Pujols’ success this season has been his ability to consistently crush left-handed pitching. He’s hit 12 of his 18 home runs in 2022 off lefties. Entering Sunday, Pujols ranked third in all of baseball in OPS against left-handed pitching (1.180), trailing only teammate Paul Goldschmidt (1.379) among hitters with at least 70 plate appearances against lefties.

In addition to homering off all 30 MLB teams in his career, Pujols has homered from all nine spots in the batting order, in every inning, on every day of the week and in every count during an at-bat. He’s had 60 two-homer games and four three-home run games.

Pujols is a team-first player before anything else, which makes it picture perfect that his 696th and 697th homers have come in very high-leverage situations to help the Cardinals come from behind twice. It’s why he has done all the time-intensive preparation over the years, why he came back to the Cardinals at age 42 for one last season.

But Pujols admitted that he has been able to take a step back from the team results and the playoff push to savor this moment in history, one he is rewriting day by day as his career moves toward what figures to be an unforgettable close.

“For 23 years as I’ve played as a professional, for 37 years I’ve played in my life, I’ve always appreciated this game,” Pujols said. “You have to. This opportunity comes once, and that’s something I’ve been blessed with.

“For me, I play every game like it’s the last game of my career.”