The northbound lanes of the 57 freeway were shut down early Wednesday afternoon and Albert Pujols was just three miles from Angel Stadium when he realized the end of his commute might take him nearly an hour.
The Angels were playing a rare 5 p.m. game. Pujols had planned to arrive at least two hours before first pitch. When he finally rolled into the Angels empty clubhouse, he had less than 75 minutes to prepare for a game the Angels needed to win to avoid being swept by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Pujols, a veteran of 19 seasons and a hoarder of major league records, did not panic. He got in the cold tank, soaked in the hot tub and milled around the batting cage for about 20 minutes.
Pujols compressed his routine but did not skimp on his performance. He propelled the Angels to a 7-4 victory with a two-hit, three-RBI game. During the game, he became the all-time hits leader among players born outside the United States with 3,168, eclipsing fellow Dominican Adrian Beltre’s record by two hits.
“What more can we say?” Angels manager Brad Ausmus said. “He’s one of the greatest players to ever play the game, one of the greatest hitters ever to play the game. He’s gonna pass some other names, I’m sure, that are very well known and have plaques in Cooperstown. I’m kind of running out of accolades.”
Yet it was more impressive that Pujols did what he did in his 96th game — in a mid-August series finale.
The Angels had planned to scale back Pujols’ workload this year. With two seasons remaining on his contract, they wanted to keep the 39-year-old healthy coming off last fall’s knee and elbow surgeries. They signed first baseman Justin Bour in hopes of instituting a platoon. The arrangement went sideways. Bour hit .163 with a .584 on-base-plus-slugging percentage through his first 30 games and was demoted to triple-A.
At least one part of the plan has not crumpled. Pujols, whose career as an Angel has been compromised by lower-body injuries and declining offense, has kept himself off the injured list. Not even hamstring soreness last month hampered him. He missed only one game.
Pujols has sat out of 26 games this season.
“It feels great to feel like this,” Pujols said, sweat still glistening on his brow from his postgame workout. “But we still have six or seven weeks left in the season, so I don’t want to speak too loud. I want to make sure that I stay healthy.”
Pujols is hitting .242 with a .742 OPS and 70 RBIs this year and he helped the Angels win for only the fifth time in 19 games.
Rookie Luis Rengifo almost stole the show from Pujols. His Little League homer in the fourth inning gave the Angels a 4-2 lead.
He dashed out of the left-handed batter’s box, covering 29.2 feet per second on his sprint around the bases. He outpaced the MLB average, which is tracked by MLB’s Statcast system, by 2.2 feet per second.
But Pujols’ two-run hit in the eighth inning — a dribbler into center field against a drawn-in infield — padded the cushion to 6-3.
Not that Rengifo minded.
“He has showed me that nothing is gifted to you,” Rengifo said in Spanish. “You have to work hard to see the results. I think everything he’s done in his career has been spectacular thanks to the hard work he does before playing and after playing games.”
“It’s great to see him continue to elevate Latinos in this game.”
Dillon Peters became the Angels’ first starting pitcher to earn a victory since Griffin Canning on July 30. After a shaky first inning when he walked the first batter on four pitches and hit two batters , he allowed only four of the final 18 he faced to reach base. The left-handed Peters allowed just two runs on four hits and struck out six over six innings, his third straight outing of at least six innings. Peters has allowed three or fewer runs in eight of nine appearances this year. … Reliever Noe Ramirez, reinstated from the injured list before the win, began his three-game suspension. The Angels must proceed with 24 players until his term is completed. Ramirez lost 11 pounds because of a viral infection that landed him on the injured list late last month.