Slugger is 26th member of exclusive big league fraternity
WASHINGTON -- Albert Pujols called his shot at about 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday, mere hours before joining an exclusive club in unprecedented fashion, while making small talk with shortstop Erick Aybar and FOX Sports West broadcaster Jose Mota in the tunnel that leads to the Nationals Park batting cage.
"I took my 0-for-5 yesterday," he told them, "and I'm going to hit two out today."
Pujols mentioned it in the postgame news conference, Aybar swore by it in the celebratory visiting clubhouse, Mota relayed it later, and Mike Trout confirmed it, too.
Pujols' prediction was relayed to Trout just before the game began.
"Albert's Albert," Trout said. "If he tells you something, he's gonna do it."
And he did.
Pujols homered twice in the Angels' 7-2 victory over the Nationals, becoming the 26th member of the 500-home run club and the first player to hit Nos. 499 and 500 on the very same day, just like he said he would.
"It's pretty special," said Pujols, who wouldn't talk openly about his pursuit of 500 homers until it actually happened. "To have almost 18,000 players wear a big league uniform, and to have only 26 players do this, it's pretty special. At the end, I give all the glory and all the credit to the Lord, because without him, I wouldn't be here. And my family, which supports me through good times and bad times."
At 34 years and 96 days old, Pujols is the third-youngest player to hit his 500th home run, trailing only Alex Rodriguez (32 years, eight days) and Jimmie Foxx (32 years, 338 days). Of the 25 others who have hit 500 homers, 16 are in the Hall of Fame. The nine others -- Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds -- are either not yet eligible or tied to performance-enhancing substances.
No. 500 came in the same place where Pujols became the third-youngest player to hit 400 homers, on Aug. 26, 2010.
There was another constant: David Freese.
"Starting in '01, being a kid in high school, watching him play a little third base, a little left field, amazing to think that years down the road I'd be able to witness such a special time in history, in person, wearing the same jersey," said Freese, a lifelong Cardinals fan who was also with Pujols in St. Louis from 2009-11.
"What Albert has done on the field is extremely impressive, but what he's done off the field is even more so. There's a lot of guys that make a lot of history in this game, on the field. But what he does off the field is incredible."
In the first, with two on and none out, Pujols got a 1-1 changeup out over the plate from right-hander Taylor Jordan and lofted a towering fly ball that traveled an estimated 387 feet and landed just to the right of the left-field foul pole.
In the fifth, with one on, none out and the Angels holding on to a two-run lead, he got a 1-2, chest-high sinker from Jordan, and smoked a liner that sailed past the Angels' bullpen in left-center field and into the hands of Tom Sherrill, an Angels fan who scooped up the historic baseball right by the railing and gave it back to Pujols after the game.
"I had a good feeling that it was going to be a special day," Pujols said. "Sometimes, as a player, as an athlete, you just have a feeling."
The ball traveled 430 feet, and Pujols called it "probably the best swing I've taken this year so far.
"It came at a good time."
Pujols remained stoic as he rounded the bases, then clapped his hands twice and pointed his two index fingers to the sky just before he crossed home plate. There, he was greeted by hugs from all his teammates and a standing ovation from the 21,915 fans in attendance. Shortly after that, Pujols had what he believes is his first curtain call on the road.
"To say that you reached two milestones like that, 400 and 500, [in the same stadium], is pretty special," Pujols said after becoming the 10th player to reach 500 homers in the last 15 years.
Trout, fittingly, was on first base.
"It's special just to be in the same clubhouse with him and share the moment with him," the Angels' 22-year-old center fielder said. "Being on first base was pretty crazy. As soon as he hit it, I knew it was gone. What an unbelievable teammate. It's just an unbelievable feeling. I'm getting chills thinking about it now. It's just the beginning. He has a bunch of years left."
What was most gratifying about the homer to Pujols, in addition to the fact that it came in a team victory, is that it coincides with how great he's feeling again.
Pujols is the only player in history to begin his career with 10 straight seasons of at least a .300 batting average, 30 homers and 100 RBIs, and he fell one batting-average point and one RBI short of doing it in an 11th straight season in 2011.
But his career has taken a drastically different turn since he signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels in December 2011.
There was that month-and-a-half-long homerless slump in 2012, a year that nonetheless finished with a solid .285/.343/.516 slash line. And there was a 2013 season in which he was a shell of himself, dealing with an aggressive case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot, a perpetually swollen right knee, and no lower half as he notched by far the lowest OPS of his career (.767) and didn't play past July.
But the three-time MVP Award winner is healthy now, and feeling good, and starting to resemble the Pujols of old, and not just an old Pujols.
The two homers on Tuesday gave him eight, more than anyone in baseball and one away from Brian Downing (1987) for the most April homers in Angels history. And he's coupled that with a .274/.337/.619 slash line.
"Last couple years have been really tough, but I feel that I'm getting my swing right where I want it to be," Pujols said.
Pujols' wife, Deidre, is back home with the couple's five children, waiting to board a pre-arranged flight to New York that she hoped would coincide with her husband's historic homer. Deidre told Albert that if he hit No. 499 in the nation's capital, she'd get on a plane as soon as possible.
But Pujols didn't cooperate.
He hit them too fast.
"When I scored," Pujols recalled, "I went and made a phone call, and I called her and she was doing her nails. And everybody in the salon was telling her congratulations, and she was like, 'Did you just hit your 500th?' I was like, 'Sorry.'"