Pujols hits 555th HR in chase for stellar year
Veteran ties Manny for 14th on all-time list, takes things one year at a time
OAKLAND -- Albert Pujols' second-inning homer against the electric Sonny Gray, a key blow in a 9-4 win over the A's, gave him 555 career home runs, tying him with countryman Manny Ramirez for 14th on the all-time list. It gave him 35 this year, joining only three others -- Alex Rodriguez, Mike Schmidt and Willie Mays -- to reach 35-plus homers 10 times within their first 15 seasons. And it put him on pace for 42, a number he hasn't reached since 2010.
In some ways, though, Pujols is still chasing that season. He's still trying to be the player he was back then, and part of him can't accept being anything less.
"He says it himself," Pujols' good friend, Angels shortstop Erick Aybar, said in Spanish. "He tells me every once in a while about having a season like the ones he had in St. Louis. The injuries have made it hard, but he keeps trying and trying and trying, every day a little bit more."
Pujols was still at the height of his career when he signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels in December 2011. Then he slumped through the first six weeks of the 2012 season and was hindered by plantar fasciitis in 2013, a year in which he sat out the last two months.
Pujols was everything the Angels could've hoped for in 2014, batting .272/.324/.466 with 28 homers and 105 RBIs, but it was nothing compared to the cartoon numbers he posted throughout his first 10 seasons. He returned to the All-Star Game after a four-year hiatus this season, but his current slash line -- .249/.309/.495 -- still doesn't match up.
It isn't fair, of course. Pujols isn't supposed to produce like he did in his late 20s or early 30s. He's expected to age, he's expected to spend a little bit more time as a designated hitter and he isn't expected to get around on the fastball as quickly as he used to.
"The guys who had great success in their careers, sooner or later, because of injuries, they slow down," Pujols admitted. "I'm really mentally tough, and I try to stay focused on the things that I can do. I know how to play hurt -- I've played hurt probably half of my career -- and I know how to control myself when I'm hurt. But it's hard. Trust me, it hasn't been what I'd love to be in this organization. But hopefully I still have a lot of years left. Winning a championship here would be huge for this organization."
Pujols brought up Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, immortal basketball players until age caught up with them.
"Just like those guys -- they were blessed in their careers -- I've been blessed in my whole career," Pujols said. "I think I know what I can do when I'm healthy. I was born to play this game and to hit, and if I can stay healthy, I know what I can do."
Pujols said he feels "really good" now, though he entered Wednesday batting .224 since the start of July and then started at DH for the third time in the past four games. He still provides flashes of the menacing slugger he used to be, like that line-drive single off the glove of A's shortstop Marcus Semien in Wednesday's first inning, which Statcast™ had traveling 109.61 mph.
But those moments only come intermittently now -- about as frequently as he gets asked about his future.
"People ask me all the time when I'm going to retire," Pujols said. "I'm like, 'You know what, I'm just going to play one year at a time. I think this game will let you know. I don't think you retire yourself; I think the game lets you know when it's time for you to walk out. When that time comes -- I hope it doesn't come soon -- that's the time that I can walk out. But right now, I feel really good, I feel healthy. I worked my butt off this offseason; I'm going to work my butt off again."
The chase never ends.