The ballparks of the National League Central Division represent ready-made reminders of how great Albert Pujols was at one time. Even now, he holds home run records in most of them; only one current Pittsburgh Pirate has hit more home runs at PNC Park than Pujols, and Pujols hadn’t played here in five years before the weekend.
He was still a St. Louis Cardinal then, still baseball’s most formidable hitter. In Sunday’s series finale, he hammered home a new time capsule when he launched the game-winning homer in the Angels’ 5-4 comeback victory.
But the dramatic fashion in which the win was finalized one inning later provided a reminder of what he is today: a limited slugger, constrained by the inevitability of time. Playing first base for the third consecutive day, the 36-year-old stretched to complete the game-ending double play and then fell to the ground in pain. Two teammates had to help him to his feet while trainers examined him.
“As soon as they said Albert can walk, I knew we were OK,” said closer Huston Street, one of the two. “Because if Albert can walk, Albert will play.”
At this point, with 916 games and $156 million still remaining on Pujols’ contract, that truth has approached an axiom. Hampered by an array of injuries to his lower body, he has nevertheless started 89% of the time as an Angel, and he’ll surely continue to play. His latest injury is only a rolled left ankle with the beginnings of a bruise.
He cannot draw walks at the rate he once did or spray line drives to all fields with ease. But he can still field his position, he can still hit home runs, and he can still command a presence. Two innings before the home run, Pujols lectured Pirates starter Gerrit Cole with unexplained ferocity at first base. He revealed only that he spoke out in response to a perceived injustice against Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun earlier in the game.
“Whatever I had to say, I said to him,” Pujols said later. “And it’ll stay between me and him. I don’t want to play the media thing, where I said that and he said that. I’m pretty sure we’re fine.”
Cole declined to speak about it to reporters. The former UCLA star continued his strong season Sunday but was chased in the seventh after cruising through most of the day.
Angels third baseman and leadoff hitter Yunel Escobar has reached base nearly half the time he begins a game this season, and on Sunday afternoon he singled to commence the contest. He took third base when Mike Trout singled to right field and scored when Pujols powered a sacrifice fly. The Angels did not score again until the seventh, by which time they trailed by three runs.
Hector Santiago walked Pittsburgh’s leadoff hitter Jordy Mercer, then yielded a one-out single to Gregory Polanco. He induced a groundout from Jung Ho Kang, but Starling Marte timed a changeup to place a single into short right field for a run.
Next, he hit Kang in the ankle, forcing in another. Santiago permitted no more walks or runs but lasted only two more innings before exiting, his earned-run average up to an unsightly 5.07.
Joyce, the former Angel, robbed Gregorio Petit of a double and the Angels of a run when he dove to snare a liner in the third inning. Calhoun doubled two batters later but stayed stranded at second.
Rafael Ortega’s seventh-inning single was the Angels’ next hit. With two outs, C.J. Cron pinch-hit and punched a double to center. Petit lashed a double to right, scoring another run.
An Escobar single would tie the score, the Angels’ relievers having held strong. Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle replaced Cole with Neftali Feliz, and Escobar shot a ball into the gap, but the nimble Marte reached it and made a leaping grab, ending the inning.
Pujols followed with the homer after Calhoun singled in the next inning.
“This game gives to you, and this game takes away,” Pujols said. “The reality is that you can’t get frustrated about it. You have to keep running and pushing and get yourself ready.”
He was speaking about the hard luck he fell upon early in the season, the same sort Escobar experienced, and the good luck he has benefited from now, Pujols’ hard drives far more often falling for hits.
He could have been speaking about his career.