Will Pujols play more down the stretch?

September 16th, 2022

This story was excerpted from John Denton's Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Quite frankly, no one wants to see Albert Pujols reach the exclusive 700-home-run club more than Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, especially with their close friendship of more than a decade, their similar Dominican heritage and their honest and trusting pact on this season’s team.

Heck, Marmol, his wife, Amber, and their kids even live in the house Pujols owned during his heyday in St. Louis from 2001-11, which he has since leased to his now manager with the Cardinals.

Marmol is pulling for Pujols because the slugger’s feats these days are more meaningful than ever. Four of his past five homers either tied games, gave the Cardinals the lead or were game-winning shots. And even as a first-year manager and someone six years younger than the 42-year-old Pujols, Marmol considers himself a fan of the game, and he marvels at the greatness Pujols is still able to summon in clutch moments.

To this point, Marmol has done a masterful job in how he’s handled Pujols to set the slugger up for success. He’s made sure to use him every chance he gets against left-handers and against certain soft-tossing righties against which Pujols’ swing matches up well. Marmol even showed the backbone early in the season to pinch-hit for Pujols when he was struggling, or when the matchup was a poor one -- something the manager said Pujols handled with class. Marmol’s usage of Pujols, while mostly successful with the Cardinals, has been a point of contention among many fans eager to see the slugger reach the 700-homer plateau.

“You should see my [direct messages] on Instagram; I’ve been called every name in the book by fans in the D.R. when I don’t have Albert in the lineup,” Marmol disclosed, semi-seriously and semi-jokingly. “If Albert doesn’t get to 700, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go back there.”

When the conversation arises about how Pujols should be used over the final three weeks of the season, Marmol acknowledges the desire of baseball fans -- especially those diehards in St. Louis and the Dominican -- to see the slugger become just the fourth person in history to reach 700 home runs. But he’s also trying to balance how to continue to put Pujols in positions to have the greatest success. Also, there’s this debate: Is Pujols best served starting games and getting four to five at-bats a game or should he be saved as a pinch-hitter where he can be plopped into the most advantageous spots? These are the things Marmol is mulling while also dealing with the pressures to give Pujols as many opportunities as possible to get to 700.

“I’d want to see four [at-bats] a night, too. I get it, I completely get it,” Marmol said. “The balance is how do we get the best version of Albert? Is it playing him every day? Or is it not? What’s scarier for the opposition -- me being able to pick my spots to use him based on the best matchups and they don’t have an answer for it? Or them being able to match up with him based on him being in the [starting] lineup?

“It’s a great conversation, and I don’t think there’s a right answer. You might say, ‘Well, just give him four at-bats!’ Sure, we can do that, but is it more meaningful to use him when [the Brewers] go [left-hander Hoby] Milner and we say, ‘Here you go, Albert?’ If we use him that way, it’s a great button to be able to push that other teams don’t have an answer for. So, you balance that. I don’t have all the right answers, but I have my theory.”