ST. LOUIS -- Some 40-plus hours before Albert Pujols rose to the occasion, met the moment again and ultimately crushed the 695th home run of his career Sunday, the legendary slugger picked up on a distinctly different vibe wafting through the humid air at Busch Stadium.
That palatable feeling was one bubbling with excitement. It was one that had grown tense by the dwindling days and an increased urgency. It was filled with expectation, and Pujols -- someone who doesn’t miss much of anything these days -- felt it deep in his power-hitting core.
Upon merely stepping out onto the on-deck circle late in Friday’s one-sided victory over the Cubs, Pujols was met with a wave of energy from the crowd at Busch Stadium. It was that moment when the 42-year-old Cardinals legend first realized that his record-setting home run chase had reached another gear in terms of excitement, intensity and urgency.
“I’ve been energized by these fans for 12 years in my career, including the playoffs, but on Friday, I felt something different,” Pujols candidly admitted Sunday following the Cardinals’ 2-0 win over the Cubs. “When I came in and pinch-hit on Friday in my first at-bat against [Sean] Newcomb, I felt something different. I don’t know what it was, but I felt it. I shared it with my family, and I shared it with my kids who were here and I was like, ‘Wow, this was different.’”
A similar vibe returned Sunday when Pujols popped out of the dugout to pinch-hit and delivered in the clutch. Called upon in the bottom of the eighth inning of a scoreless game, Pujols hammered a home run to help the Cardinals beat the Cubs. The Statcast-projected 429-foot blast pulled Pujols to within one home run of Alex Rodriguez for fourth all-time and within the number on his back -- 5 -- of the rarefied air 700 home runs would bring.
Not only did Pujols extend his all-time record of homering off 451 pitchers -- Chicago’s Brandon Hughes, in this instance -- he mashed a long ball on his final swing against the rival Cubs, a franchise he has terrorized for decades. In 199 career games against the Cubs -- most of them coming with the birds on the bat across his chest -- Pujols smashed 59 home runs, 99 extra-base hits and 149 RBIs. A day after close friend and teammate Yadier Molina tortured the Cubs with two hits and three RBIs, Pujols took things a step further with a prodigious blast over the Cubs’ bullpen.
“I’m thinking that’s OK for your last at-bat against the Cubs?” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. Later, Marmol addressed Pujols’ rare ability to block out the pressure and the white-hot intensity of expectations and deliver in a big moment.
“There are times when you take a step back from being locked into the game and you get to be a fan for a minute and experience it the way everybody else does, and that was one of them,” Marmol said. “You take a moment and take it all in because what he’s doing is absolutely incredible.”
On the heels of the Cardinals sweeping the Cubs for a second time this season at Busch Stadium and winning there for the 18th time in the past 20 home games, other St. Louis players seem to also be sensing the magic of what is happening between Pujols and a fanbase that adores him. Tommy Edman, who doubled ahead of Pujols’ game-winning home run, was confused as to why the fans cheered a strike call to him before he realized Pujols had popped out of the dugout to pinch-hit. Then, starting pitcher Miles Mikolas -- who was brilliant while allowing just two hits and one walk over eight scoreless innings -- had this exchange in the dugout.
Unidentified teammate looking out into the outfield: “What was that loud cheer for?”
Mikolas: “Oh, Albert stepped out onto the on-deck circle.”
Unidentified teammate: “Oh, OK, that makes sense.”
Late Sunday, after the Cardinals finished off their 13-6 edge over the Cubs in the season series, Pujols admitted that the excitement of this late-season surge -- both in terms of his power hitting and St. Louis’ torrid play of late -- has helped carry him emotionally. Attempting to play to the crowd, Pujols said, can be a blessing and a curse because of the tendency to do too much, but he is a willing passenger on this emotional wave.
“That’s why these fans are the best fans in baseball,” Pujols said. “It’s pretty special to be able to do this and share that moment with [the fans]. Definitely, I wanted to do something special, and that can be your worst enemy, too, because you try to do too much. At the end of the day, knowing what you need to do, hunting the pitch you’re looking for and not trying to do too much -- the nights you do it and you get to enjoy it, that’s what I love the most.”