Cubs' strategy vs. Pujols doesn't work

September 5th, 2022

ST. LOUIS -- A few minutes before Albert Pujols sent Busch Stadium into a rollicking frenzy by hitting his 695th career home run to provide all the scoring in the Cubs' 2-0 loss Sunday afternoon, manager David Ross walked out to the mound to deliver a message to the rookie reliever who was about to play his part in that drama.

What could he say to a 26-year-old who was about to face one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time in the eighth inning of a scoreless game?

“Attack him with my best stuff, and if I fell behind, he’d put him on,” was how Brandon Hughes recalled it.

Problem is, Hughes never had a chance to fall behind. Pujols ambushed the second pitch of the at-bat and sent it on a towering arc past the Cubs’ bullpen to complete the three-game sweep for St. Louis and to pull him to within one home run of Alex Rodriguez for fourth place on the all-time list. If he reaches 700 or passes A-Rod, Chicago will be a footnote on Pujols’ march to glory. He hit his 693rd career homer off Drew Smyly on Aug. 22 at Wrigley Field. Like Sunday’s blast, that one also won the game for the Cardinals, in that case by a 1-0 score.

Hughes didn’t seem to be taking much consolation in being in good company. He was the record-extending 451st pitcher the expected Hall of Famer has homered against.

“No, home runs aren’t fun to give up, simple as that,” Hughes said.

The Cubs came into this series hoping it would be a good measuring stick of where their rebuild stands and left St. Louis to head back home with a pretty good notion of just how wide the talent gap is between the two rivals. They were outscored 18-4. Chicago scored in just two innings of the 27 it played.

The Cardinals hit six home runs. The Cubs hit zero.

Of the 19 games the rivals played in 2022, the Cards won 13 of them.

“Look, they’re a really good team, and they’ve got some guys who have been a part of multiple championships and they’ve got momentum on their side right now,” Ross said. “They’re playing good baseball, they’re getting good pitching and their defense is really fundamentally sound. As good as our guy pitched, so did theirs. Then a Hall of Famer steps up and hits a pinch-hit homer. It’s just one of those [where] you’ve got to tip your cap to them, and our guys competed really hard and just came up a little short.”

Marcus Stroman was deprived of the win after he pitched one of his best games as a Cub, holding the Cards scoreless over seven innings while allowing just four hits and striking out five. The problem is, St. Louis pitcher Miles Mikolas was even more efficient, going eight scoreless innings on an even lower pitch count and giving most of the Cardinals’ bullpen the day off. Ross elected to pull Stroman after his 98th pitch, which ended the seventh inning.

“I never want to come out of the game, to be honest,” Stroman said. “Like I said, that’s out of my control always. I do everything I can when I’m out there, and when my time’s up, my time’s up.”

The minute Ross went to the lefty Hughes, he knew the Cards would use Pujols at some point in that inning, but he wasn’t sure where. Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol inserted Pujols in lefty Lars Nootbaar’s spot after Tommy Edman had doubled with one out. Two fastballs later, the game was decided and Pujols was a step closer to history.

Well before all of that, one of Chicago's best young players got a bit of a test. Third baseman Christopher Morel had a few shaky moments in the field early in Sunday’s game, and the Cardinals seemed intent on forcing him to make plays after that, but he made a big one when the Cubs needed it.

Corey Dickerson reached on an infield dribbler that Morel overran in the second inning, a play ruled an error despite a high degree of difficulty.

Then, when Nolan Gorman singled to center fielder Rafael Ortega deflected off Morel’s glove, Dickerson advanced to third. When Andrew Knizner hit an infield chopper, Dickerson crept down the line and took off for home when Morel threw to first, but Alfonso Rivas took his time and made an accurate throw to the plate. That’s how the Cubs ended the second inning on a rare 5-3-2 double play.

Morel also threw high to first base after fielding Paul Goldschmidt’s sharp grounder in the sixth inning, but Rivas came down on the bag to record the out.

The Cubs will keep a close eye on Morel’s defense at third base the remainder of this season to see if they can pair him on the left side with Hoerner, who has been one of the best fielders in the game in 2022. A rookie, Morel has played center, second, third, short and has been a DH.

Hoerner nearly stole a hit from fellow Stanford alum Edman -- his double-play partner on The Farm in 2016 -- on a diving stop in the third inning, but Edman’s speed helped him beat it out. Edman later made a similar play to steal a hit from Seiya Suzuki. Edman (17) and Hoerner (15) rank second and fifth on the Major League outs above average leaderboard, a key measure of defensive acumen.