Fueled by Pride, Pujols Still Packs Power
ALSO: TIMING OF WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC COULD BE A WHOLE LOT BETTER
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Coming off the Injured List, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw walked three men in the first inning — the first time he had done that since 2010 . . .
To the Max: the Colorado Rockies, sudden spoilers despite the worst lifetime road record in baseball history, beat Max Scherzer (Mets) and Max Fried (Braves) in consecutive road games . . .
If he keeps up his current pace, 17-game winner Kyle Wright would be the first Atlanta pitcher to lead the majors in wins since Tom Glavine in 2000, when the Hall of Fame lefty won 21 . . .
At age 42, Albert Pujols has more home runs this season (15) than: Ronald Acuña, Jr. Josh Donaldson, Nick Castellanos, Javier Baez, Franmil Reyes, Joey Votto, Christian Yelich, and J.D. Martinez . . .
With his surgically-repaired knee still barking, Ronald Acuña, Jr. sat for a few days, allowing Braves manager Brian Snitker to move Rookie of the Year contender Michael Harris II to second in the lineup behind Dansby Swanson . . .
The Twins say injured starter Kenta Maeta (Tommy John surgery) won’t be returning this month as he had hoped . . .
Reliever Jesse Chavez was originally acquired by the #Braves from the Rays in a 2009 trade. He rejoined Atlanta in April of 2021, then again via trade in April 2022. Now, just weeks after being traded to the Angels, Chavez returns to the Braves for his fourth stint with the team and at 39 becomes the oldest player on the club.
Who gets the last laugh now?
Maybe Albert Pujols, if and when he hits #700
By Jeff Kallman
If you thought Albert Pujols would just go gently into that good, gray night of retirement after a single farewell season with the team where he forged his Hall of Fame case in the first place, you must be amazed at how wrong you've proven to be. I thought the same thing, more or less, and I was dead wrong.
La Máquina awoke Tuesday morning six home runs short of 700 lifetime, after he turned an 0-2 fastball a little outside from Cincinnati’s Ross Detwiler into a two-run launch the other way, into the Great American Ballpark right-field seats in the top of the third. It also put him past Barry Bonds for going nuclear against the most pitchers with 450.
What a difference a little over half-a-season makes. From April through July, Pujols—getting a farewell season in St. Louis because the designated hitter went universal at too-long enough last—hit only seven out. He closed an August in which he hit eight out, marrying him to Bonds and Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski for the most in a month by 42-or-older men.
The Cardinals aren't complaining. "We're having a blast watching him do what he's been doing,'' said manager Oliver Marmol, pun probably intended. "He's swinging the bat well. He stayed on that pitch well. It was a good swing all the way around. When he gets hot, it gives everybody confidence."
Even Detwiler didn't seem to mind being flattened Monday night. "All of his numbers are better than anything I've seen in person," the veteran left-hander said post-game. "It is kind of unbelievable. He's been so good for so long. I got ahead of him. I tried to go high fastball. I didn't get it high enough, and it leaked over the plate a little bit more than I wanted it to. The ball jumps off his bat."
Once Pujols went from nothing too special to nothing too modest with the long ball as August began, his once-expressed hope of finishing his career as a 700 man—home runs, that is—suddenly became a realistic hope. It also gave longtime followers the first transcendentally-special something to apply to him since the last time the Cardinals won the World Series.
That just so happened to be the last time before this year that Pujols was seen in a Cardinal uniform. Nobody then expected him to finish his career as a prodigal Hall of Famer, so everybody thought he'd finished his Cardinal career with a bang.
Three bangs, specifically, as in the reverse-cycle bombs he launched in Game Three of that Series: a three-run shot into the second deck in the top of the sixth, a two-run shot into the center field seats an inning later, and a solo into the left field seats in the top of the ninth. On the way to his second World Series ring.
The Cardinals may or may not have anticipated Pujols's injury-abetted decline in declining to re-sign him. The Angels, whose owner has a George Steinbrennerian passion for "name guys who put fannies in the seats," especially if they hit in tonnage, signed him to 10 years and $255 million.
At first the deal looked smart enough. Even if began with Pujols strong-arming the Angels out of the billboards announcing his arrival with the nickname he rejects, El Hombre. “I know the fans call me El Hombre, which means The Man in Spanish,” insisted the man who loved, befriended, and respected Hall of Famer Stan Musial, “but for me and St. Louis there will always be only one Man.”
Pujols's first Angel season looked just enough like a Pujols season even if his OPS and OPS+ dipped a few from his Cardinal average. A down season from Pujols then would be a career year for mere mortals. It was the same year a kid named Mike Trout began his own march to immortality. Boy, could the Angels do damage with those two, no?
Then came the plagues of plantar fasciitis in his heel and continuing further lower body injuries battering Pujols while the Angels, under the thumb of their short-sighted owner, spent madly for everything except quality pitching and maybe, even, just a replacement-level supporting cast that could stay minimally competent and healthy.
Then came the decline phase into which those injuries threw Pujols at almost warp speed. Then, the barrage of criticism toward player and club alike nearly smothering the few moments of high praise whenever the vintage Pujols made the now-very-occasional cameo. Only the Angels knew that the man still gave what best remained with whatever he had left.
"He endures a lot and doesn’t talk a lot about it," said then-GM Billy Eppler, after Pujols—who hit career homers 500 and 600 as an Angel—passed Hall of Famer Willie Mays on the all-time list in 2020. "But I can tell you that he’s definitely someone who wants to play and fights through a lot of adversity to make sure he’s out there and contributing to the club.”
"It has been so hard to watch one of the greatest players in the history of baseball fade like this,” wrote Joe Posnanski of The Athletic. “Each year, I hope against hope for Pujols to be Pujols one more time. Sadly, that just isn’t how time works. He is 40 now and a decade past his prime. It hasn’t been a sad career, though; far from it. It has been extraordinary. It has been an inspiration."
Tell that to everyone who accused Pujols witlessly of "stealing" $255 million all those years. When Pujols and the Angels agreed he should be traded before the deal finally expired at the end of last season, to the Dodgers, enough social media meatheads and maybe a few baseball writers who should have known better said it.
Few things cling so stubbornly as the lie that sports injuries, like losses, indicate character failure. Especially when it comes to athletes who manage one way or the other to play themselves into nine-figure paydays. Joe and Jane Fan, and too often Joe and Jane Sportswriter, think dollars equaling a small island nation's economy can stop Superman from turning almost permanently into Clark Kent.
I admit it. I wanted to see Pujols call it a career at last well enough before this. He had nothing left to prove. His Hall of Fame resume was secure. He himself knew how nearly impossible it was to play even at a replacement-level player’s level when the spirit was still willing but the body kept telling him where to shove it. He deserved a kinder, gentler decline phase than the one he got.
Now, as I write, La Máquina needs a mere six homers to join the 700 Club, and I don’t mean the Pat Robertson creation, either. It might have taken until August for him to make it a realistic hope. He might have hit his next one out by the time you read this.
Right now, though, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone betting against him. Imagine the racket if and when Pujols makes it. Maybe even on the regular season’s final day, in which case the racket might be heard as far away as the Delta Quadrant.
Jeff Kallman is an IBWAA Life Member who writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research, The Hardball Times, Sports-Central, and other publications. He has lived in Las Vegas since 2007, where he plays the guitar and writes music when not writing baseball. He remains a Met fan since the day they were born.
Kill World Baseball Classic — Or Move It To November [After World Series Ends]
By Dan Schlossberg
The World Baseball Classic is neither “world” nor classic. In fact, it is a disaster waiting to happen, disrupting spring training for all 30 teams, competing with clubs for ticket sales, and creating the strong probability of injuries to pitchers ill-prepared to work more than a couple of innings per start.
That leaves MLB with two obvious choices: kill it or move it to November.
Even though the World Series has been pushed into the first week of Thanksgiving month by the expanded playoffs — another money-grabbing gimmick — there’s almost a full month of down time between the end of the baseball season and the start of the Winter Meetings in December.
With no work stoppage to interfere, November is prime time to sell tickets for the following season. And it would be even better if baseball games competed for tabloid headlines with such inferior winter sports as football, basketball, and hockey.
Major League Baseball surely knows this, which is why they’re sending an All-Star team to Korea for the first time in 100 years. The four-game 2022 Korea Series will pit the U.S. delegation against players from the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO).
And it will contain an international flavor, with many different countries represented by the visitors from the U.S. majors.
According to Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer, the series will take place on Nov. 11-12 at Busan Sajik Baseball Stadium and Nov. 14-15 at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. In his words:
“South Korea’s rich baseball tradition has produced many accomplished Major League players, including All-Stars Chan Ho Park and Shin-Soo Choo, as well as current Blue Jays pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu and Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi. Major League Baseball is excited to travel to Busan and Seoul for this historic series.”
Plans are also in the works for games in Europe, Asia, Mexico, and Latin America through the 2026 season as MLB seeks to create international awareness and — left unsaid — expand revenue sources.
Meanwhile, the World Baseball Classic does the same. Why else would managers and general managers permit their players to be purloined — and possibly over-used or even ignored — in the middle of spring training?
Some of the participants, such as Puerto Rico, aren’t separate countries and others, such as Italy and Israel, have rosters loaded with players linked to those countries by ancestry only.
Like inter-league play, balanced scheduling, and the “Manfred man” on second base during extra-inning games, it’s just a bad idea conceived by 30-somethings marketing people who don’t know baseball history.
By moving it to November, however, at least there’s a chance to salvage the concept, promote the game, and sell more tickets.
Here’s The Pitch weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ writes the Cleaning Up column. He also covers baseball for forbes.com, Latino Sports, Sports Collectors Digest, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, and more. He just got his first assignment from the Hall of Fame’s Memories & Dreams. E.mail Dan via firstname.lastname@example.org.
“You know, you work hard in the spring and in the offseason to play, then you’ve just got to sit out and watch. It’s boring. You want to be in the action, you know?”
— Atlanta second baseman Ozzie Albies, soon to return from a fractured foot
The Yankees and Orioles were the teams involved in the biggest trade in baseball history: 17 players on Dec. 1, 1954 . . .
Speaking of Baltimore, the team made a good move inking Jesus Aguilar to a minor-league contract, making him eligible for recall anytime. Aguilar gives the O’s some thump off the bench at a time when the lineup has been struggling. Rougned Odor, Ryan Mountcastle, Jorge Mateo and Kyle Stowers, in particular, have had rough showings across the past couple weeks, while bench options like Robinson Chirinos, Ryan McKenna and Tyler Nevin have provided next to no offense in that time . . .
Hank Aaron never hit for the cycle but Christian Yelich did it three times . . .
Nice touch by the Mets to retire No. 24 for Willie Mays even though the long-time Giants star spent only two fading years in Flushing. See special column tomorrow.
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HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [email@example.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [firstname.lastname@example.org] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [email@example.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.