Thursday, April 24, 2014

Prince Albert Smokes 500 Home Runs

By Jeff Kallman

This week's set between the Los Angeles Angels and the Washington Nationals was supposed to be about Mike Trout vs. Bryce Harper. On Monday night they went a combined 2-for-8 with no runs scored or driven in; on Tuesday night, Harper went 0-for-4 and Trout 1-for-5 with 2 runs scored. And Trout needed Albert Pujols to get those two scored on a night Pujols had a feeling he was about to swing his way into history.

"I took my 0-for-5 yesterday," Pujols is said to have told teammate Erick Aybar during pre-game routines. "And I'm going to hit two out today." The drift of that conversation got to Trout. "Albert's Albert. If he tells you something, he's gonna do it," Trout related.

Taylor Jordan, the Nationals' starting and losing pitcher Tuesday night, probably wishes Pujols had kept his not-so-big trap shut.

In the first inning, with nobody out and J.B. (Aw) Shuck (leadoff double) and Trout (safe on third baseman Anthony Rendon's throwing error) aboard, he threw Pujols a 1-1 change-up that dangled so far above the middle of the plate Pujols could have been arraigned on criminal neglect charges if he didn't do exactly what he did to it, sending it into the left field seats.

That sent the Angels three toward a 4-0 lead before the first inning even changed sides. (Chris Ianetta would send home Howie Kendrick with the fourth run of the frame.) In the top of the fifth, however, with Trout (leadoff single) on board again, Jordan wanted to throw Pujols a sinkerball low and away. The ball didn't sink. It didn't arrive at the plate anywhere close to low and away. And it didn't stop traveling until it passed the Angels' bullpen into a spot in the bleachers where Tom Sherrill, Angels fan, could retrieve it before the swarm.

Sherrill made damn sure he got to give Pujols the ball before anyone could even think about starting to tabulate the ball's market value. Pujols, for his part, had more important things on his mind after arriving at the plate off the first of his two night's bombs. "I told them, 'We've still got a game to win'," he recalled of the scene as he crossed the plate into his teammates' greetings the first time around.

The second time around, Pujols swung his way into the record book with a flourish. He not only became the 26th member of the 500-bomb club, he became the only one to get there by hitting numbers 499 and 500 in the same game.

The Angels kind of gifted the Nats cutting that early lead in half in the Washington third, with a bases-loaded wild pitch from starter Tyler Skaggs and a run-scoring double play by Washington's Jayson Werth. But Pujols flattened the unsinkable sinker for the milestone mash and a 6-2 lead that became a 7-2 final after the bullpen held it following David Freese's eighth-inning sacrifice fly scoring Aybar (one-out double; stolen base).

Pujols himself has been having a far different season than his first two with the Angels, with whom he signed following the 2011 World Series triumph to which he and Freese helped stake the St. Louis Cardinals. He started slow to finish respectably in 2012, but 2013 was ruined by knee trouble and a painful case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot. There were even those writing his baseball obituary.

After all those impeccable Cardinal seasons — he was the only man in baseball history to hit .300, hit 30 or more bombs, and send home 100 or more runs in his first 10 major league seasons while wearing the birds on the bat, among other things including two World Series rings — it would have been a sorry way to go, even if he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer regardless.

Pujols isn't exactly an immodest man but he has an awareness of the game's history second to few. "To have almost 18,000 players wear a big league uniform, and to have only 26 players do this," he said after the game, "it's pretty special."

"Starting in [2001], 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," Freese told reporters, speaking as the lifelong Cardinal fan who got to play with Pujols from 2009-2011, not to mention making sure Pujols's staggering 3-bomb World Series game didn't go for nothing in the Cardinals's extraterrestrial Series triumph.

"What Albert has done on the field is extremely impressive, but what he's done off the field is even more so," Freese continued. "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."

Pujols is well enough known for his off-field works. He's also known for making the other guy blink when accused of even a tiny truck with actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. A Cardinal predecessor at first base, Jack Clark, accused Pujols of just that last year on a radio show. Pujols hit back with a lawsuit. This past February, Jack the Ripper (so nicknamed in tribute to his own monstrous home runs) retracted his earlier comments completely.

On the field, of course, Pujols is known in surrealistic terms. Among other things, he has the fourth-highest batting average (.321) of any 500-bomb club member, behind only Jimmie Foxx (.325), Babe Ruth (.342), and Ted Williams (.344). And he has the second-best strikeout-to-bomb ratio (1.69 K per homer) of any of the 500-clubbers, Williams (1.36) being the only one better.

Today it seems strikeouts are epidemic. Pujols has struck out only 843 times lifetime to date. He's just ahead of Mel Ott (896) and just behind Williams (709). It's not that you'd rather see him hitting into double plays, of course (the bad news, maybe some of the few of his career: he's averaged 22 per 162 games lifetime), but Pujols to date has struck out only once every 10 and a half at-bats.

When Freese was traded to the Angels over the winter, after back trouble killed his 2013 and made him futile on a postseason stage he'd once owned, the first message he got was from Pujols: "Remember what we did the last time we played together? Let's go try to do that again."

The Angels are now a .500 club. It won't be quite as easy for the pair to do again with the Angels what they did so shockingly for St. Louis three years ago. Right now they're third in the Show in offense but 19th in defense; they needed a four-run eighth on the night Pujols took his collar to beat the Nats 4-2, after Tanner Roark manhandled them for a 6 2/3 shutout inning start. And before they hit Washington they'd dropped four out of six to other contenders.

Things like hitting milestones with two swings in one game sure don't hurt. Neither do things like Pujols, modest fellow though he often is, all but predicting what he would do Tuesday. Someone should have finked to Pujols's wife, who was back home with their children anticipating a trip to New York where her husband's said to have thought he might hit Number 500 at first. Reportedly, Mrs. Pujols told her husband if he hit 499 in Washington she'd jump the soonest plane possible.


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