ST. LOUIS — Continuing to hit home runs with great meaning — both in terms of historical significance and to the Cardinals’ chances of landing a top playoff seed — Albert Pujols hit the 698th home run of his career Friday against the Reds.
With the Cardinals trailing by two runs in the sixth inning, Pujols hit a hanging slider from Raynel Espinal a Statcast-projected 427 feet to tie the game at 4. The blast, which left his bat at 106.3 mph, pulled the slugger within two home runs of 700. Only three players in AL/NL history have hit 700 home runs — Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth — and Pujols is making a charge to join them before he retires at the end of this season. The Cardinals have 17 games remaining after the 6-5 win at Busch Stadium for Pujols to try to hit at least two more home runs.
“At the end of the day, it’s just about whatever you can do to help this ballclub,” Pujols said. “Obviously, when they come in a big situation like this it’s awesome. We’re pushing to try and win the division, and this is what we need.”
Five of Pujols’ past six home runs have either tied the game or given the Cardinals the lead.
“I like when he homers then,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol joked. “That was a big swing. He continues to do it in meaningful situations, and that’s what matters. It would be one thing if he was just chasing , but he’s taking an unbelievable approach and then delivering when we need it most. Is he chasing 700? Yes, but he’s chasing a championship more than that.”
Pujols’ mammoth shot off Espinal also extended his AL/NL record to 453 pitchers he has gone deep against. He came into the season second behind Barry Bonds, but he passed him a few weeks back and he continued to extend the record.
Also, there’s this as it relates to the power of Pujols home runs this season: The Cardinals are 15-1 in games when Pujols hits a home run. Three times this season he’s hit two home runs, and the Redbirds are 3-0 in those games.
“It’s unbelievable, man. Usually with fans, they get up when the ball’s hit, but here they’re already up,” marveled star third baseman Nolan Arenado, who had a double, a single, two RBIs and the defensive play of the night by throwing Cincinnati’s Kyle Farmer out at the plate from his knees. “It’s crazy and different. When the fans knew it was gone, they were going nuts. It’s just really cool to be a part of this. Seriously, it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
Added star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who had two hits and an RBI: “I’m just enjoying it and thankful that I’m getting to be in this moment with him. It’s something that I’ll never get to be a part of, and this is something that we might never see again. I’m just trying to take it in and remember it for as long as I can.”
Pujols hit the first pitch he saw from Espinal for a home run Friday. It was the 89th first-pitch home run of Pujols’ career. The only counts where he’s hit more home runs have come on 1-1 (99 HRs) and 1-0 (92). Pujols noted that former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa used to try to get him to swing at more first-pitch strikes, but he said he is more comfortable hitting later in counts after he’s seen a few pitches.
“Tony was one of the guys who was always mad at me for taking a bunch of first pitches, but I still take a lot of first pitches,” said Pujols, who will be in the starting lineup of Game 1 of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Reds left-hander Mike Minor. “I feel like I’m a better hitter with two strikes. Really, I don’t really change [my mindset]. If it’s not the pitch I’m looking for, I’ll take it. On that at-bat, I actually wasn’t looking to swing at the first pitch, but I just got a good pitch to hit, and I reacted on it.”
Prior to Friday’s game, Pujols played catch with former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández. Fernández, who was a guest of Pujols’ at the game, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. He told Pujols that if he hit two home runs Friday, he might have to cancel his business trip to New York the next day.
Pujols thought he might have had a second home run when he drove a ball to the wall in the seventh inning, but it came just a couple of feet shy of being No. 699 of his career. He said he is feeling the energy from the baseball fans at Busch Stadium, but also the estimated 11 million people back in his native Dominican Republic.
“I can feel that energy, and when I’m going out there and performing, I’m going out there to represent God, this organization and also my country,” said Pujols, who has hit 62 homers off the Astros, 59 off the Cubs, 54 against the Pirates and 49 against the Reds. “I want to make my country proud every single day that I step onto that field.”