Pujols' greatness once again on display for all to see
Slugger revitalized, healthy, and looking dangerous at plate in 2014
WASHINGTON -- Tuesday night at Nationals Park, Albert Pujols left an unmistakable impression on baseball history. It was not the impression of a man in the twilight of his career.
With two home runs against the Washington Nationals, Pujols became the 26th man in baseball history to hit 500 homers in his career. But what resounded here was not only that Pujols had reached a landmark career achievement. This was a man demonstrating, clearly, that his career was definitely not in irreversible decline.
Fittingly, the two home runs carried the Angels to a 7-2 victory. Both homers were majestic shots, both off Washington's Taylor Jordan; a three-run shot to left in the first inning, then a two-run drive to left-center in the fifth, a ball that soared over the Angels' bullpen on its way into history.
"It was a fastball, middle up," Pujols said. "Probably the best swing that I have taken this year so far. ... The last couple years have been really tough, but I feel like I'm getting my swing right where I want it to be."
The Washington crowd gave Pujols a suitably respectful ovation while the rest of the Angels mobbed him as soon as he finished rounding the bases.
And Pujols, 34 years and 96 days old, became the third-youngest player to reach this lofty level. Only Alex Rodriguez and Jimmie Foxx were younger when they reached 500 homers.
And the point is, Pujols doesn't appear to be anywhere near the finish line. His teammates see that, probably more clearly than anyone else.
"What an unbelievable teammate," Mike Trout, the star of the next generation, said. "He's been having a great year, and he's got a bunch of years left."
"He's healthy and he looks great," said veteran outfielder Raul Ibanez. "He's hitting the ball hard, he's locked in on pitches. He's hitting stuff that's hard, stuff that's soft. He looks fantastic.
"He's just the model of consistency, when you look at his career numbers, everything that he's done and the level of excellence he's maintained over such a long period of time. When he walks up to the plate, it's not like they don't know who he is and what he's capable of, and still, to be able to perform at that level for so many years is just extraordinary.
"He looks confident. He's got great presence again."
Last season, Pujols was hobbled. Coming off knee surgery, he also had a partial tear of the left plantar fascia and was limited to 99 games. It was the first time in his remarkable career that he had played fewer than 147 games in a season.
The criticism came in multimedia form. You could read, hear and see the criticism. What were the Angels thinking giving the guy that 10-year, $240 million contract? How were they going to cope with eight more years of aging Albert?
As we speak, the Angels are feeling extremely happy about having Mr. Pujols safely in their employment.
He is driving the ball again. Eight home runs, 19 RBIs over 20 games. His career slash line before this season was .321/.410/.599. In this season, it is .274/.337/.619. He said Tuesday night that he has not felt this good since before he was injured in 2012.
People are not speaking about Pujols in the past tense. Nationals manager Matt Williams says that Pujols' greatness lies not only in the home runs, but in the all-around hitting ability.
"It's not the homers," Williams says. "Five hundred homers and beyond, whatever he gets to, is not what sticks out to me. It's his ability to hit. I would refer to him as a well-over-.300 hitter with power. Those guys are unique, really unique.
"Generally, your sluggers, the guys who have the ability to hit the ball over the fence, are more free swingers. Albert, since the day he got to the big leagues, has been the consummate hitter, first and foremost.
"Albert is one of the great hitters of this generation. The ability to not only hit home runs, but hit .330 and drive in 100-plus very single year, that's saying something. That's the ultimate guy you want on your team, because he provides it all, not to mention Gold Glove-caliber first-base defense."
Ah, the Gold Glove defense. Monday night Pujols made a terrific play on a chopper to first to cut down a runner at the plate. It was a tricky hop, he was on the move, a bare-handed grab was required, and then a quick, strong throw to the plate. Pujols delivered the whole package on this play, reminding you, that yes indeed he had been a Gold Glove first baseman. And maybe he could be again.
"There's no doubt that where his health is right now that he's playing first base at the Gold Glove-caliber that you would expect," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We'll monitor him, and if he needs a day to refresh, we'll give it to him. He's DHed three times this year. We have that option. But he's moving very well, and he feels good."
In the post-500 media session, Pujols thanked "the Lord Jesus Christ," his wife, his five children, his father, his mother, numerous relatives, Angels ownership, various people in the Cardinals' organization -- where he spent his formative years -- and many, many more.
"We're probably going to be here until tomorrow if I start dropping names," Pujols said with a smile.
There can be a lot of credit to hand out for a career that has been this great. Tuesday night, Albert Pujols reminded the baseball world that this greatness was not just a thing of the past.