LOS ANGELES — It was a packed home, a giant second and the baseball was rising towards the sky on a line straight towards October.
Albert Pujols watched in a uniform he by no means anticipated to put on from a spot he by no means imagined he can be. It was teammate Corey Seager’s two-run blast that lit the roar that capped a Los Angeles night final week. And there was Pujols, in the Dodgers dugout, main the cheers.
Once, in the days he was referred to as The Machine, Pujols commanded his personal stretch-run highlight. Those massive moments now largely belong to others, whereas Pujols focuses on what’s normally one nightly plate look, strategically positioned, towards a left-handed reliever — although with Max Muncy injured, that might change in Wednesday’s National League wild-card recreation towards the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium.
The Dodgers signed Pujols in May, 4 days after his unceremonious launch by the Los Angeles Angels and in the remaining season of a 10-year, $240 million contract. In his very particular function, he has flourished past expectations, scorching lefties for a .306 batting common and ending the season with 12 homers and 38 R.B.I. for the Dodgers.
His teammates rave about his joie de vivre. And now a person who as soon as dominated Octobers for St. Louis is again in the postseason for the first time since 2014 — and his first check will come towards his beloved Cardinals. His irritating finish with the Angels is fading from the narrative.
“Whatever happened with the Angels is what happened with the Angels,” the longtime Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw stated. “But as soon as he got here, he embraced his role, which has been so huge for us. I think we needed that. We needed that older veteran. He calls himself Tio, we call him Tio, that uncle-type helping everybody out with hitting but also being a guy who is happy for you when you do well, smiling in the dugout.”
Watch him throughout a recreation — the smiling, the laughing, the cheering, the occasional late-innings laser — and he seems to have discovered the excellent spot for himself.
Unquestionably close to the finish of profession that has seen him acquire 3,301 hits, 679 house runs and two World Series rings, Pujols, 41, sat in the Dodgers’ dugout some 16 hours after Seager’s blast and contemplated his sudden return to October baseball.
“Hey, listen, these guys were going to have a great year whether I was here or not,” Pujols stated of his Dodgers teammates. “They’re just a really good, talented ball club with great managing, a great coaching staff, great preparation and great hitting coaches.
“I’m just blessed to have this opportunity.”
In his first 11 seasons — all with St. Louis — Pujols made the playoffs seven occasions, and went to the World Series in three of these years. Since 2011, he has been again solely as soon as. He spent most of these Octobers with his spouse, Deidre, and their 5 school-age youngsters at house in Orange County, Calif. He not often watches TV, he stated, and that features the playoffs and World Series if he’s not taking part.
“I might catch an inning or two here or there but I feel the off-season is a time to refresh and train your mind for things you want to accomplish for the next year,” he stated. “To tell you the truth, I watch more Caribbean baseball than the World Series — the winter league, stuff like that.”
Recent Octobers, he stated, have been spent with his youngsters in the pool, driving bikes, going to the seashore. The children foyer for journeys to their favourite eating places and Deidre cooks quite a bit at house.
But this week, Pujols will commerce all of that for another fall in entrance of packed stadiums.
“You can tell he appreciates being on this team; he really enjoys the success of everybody, being the super elder-statesman,” one other Dodgers ace, Max Scherzer, stated, chuckling.
To put Pujols’s age — 41 — in context, 4 of this yr’s 10 postseason managers have taken up spots on the subject reverse him in earlier Octobers as gamers: the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts and San Francisco’s Gabe Kapler had been teammates on the Boston Red Sox staff that swept Pujols and the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series. Boston’s Alex Cora was with the Dodgers throughout a 2004 division sequence between Los Angeles and St. Louis. Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell confronted Pujols’s groups twice, in a 2001 division sequence when Counsell was with Arizona and in the 2011 National League Championship Series when he was with the Brewers.
Two different key postseason figures even have in depth October expertise with Pujols: Tony La Russa, now with the Chicago White Sox, managed Pujols in the participant’s 11 seasons with St. Louis. And the Atlanta third-base coach Ron Washington was managing Texas throughout one in every of Pujols’s signature profession moments: his three-homer Game 3 in the 2011 World Series that helped St. Louis to an exhilarating seven-game title.
“Was anyone surprised? Nooooo,” Washington stated. “That was Albert Pujols. You make bad pitches to Albert Pujols back then, you got hurt.”
The Dodgers signed Pujols when Seager was sidelined with a damaged hand and outfielder Cody Bellinger was out with a hairline leg fracture. They envisioned him beginning some at first base towards lefties, realizing he would ultimately be decreased to a veteran bat off the bench. The acquisition of Trea Turner and Scherzer from Washington at the commerce deadline in July, alongside with the return to well being of Seager and others, has certainly reduce into his enjoying time — however has made him no much less useful.
“He sees a lot of things people don’t see,” stated Skip Schumaker, a bench coach for the San Diego Padres and a teammate of Pujols’s in St. Louis from 2005 to 2011. Schumaker known as Pujols the smartest participant he has ever recognized.
“He helped me like you wouldn’t believe playing right next to me, telling me what to look for and, by the way, giving me the confidence that I could play next to him on a championship team,” Schumaker stated. “That goes so far.”
The Dodgers rookie Gavin Lux has picked up on Pujols’s consideration to element, how even in the batting cage “every little thing matters, it seems like he’s got everything figured out and I still see him talking to hitting coaches.”
During their run of eight consecutive N.L. West titles, the Dodgers have integrated a extremely profitable mentorship program, bringing in Chase Utley and David Freese at the finish of their careers earlier than Pujols.
“Those three are all very different guys,” Kershaw stated. “They’re guys I have more respect for than most I’ve played with. Freeser was just a born leader and guys followed him. Chase was the same way but in a quieter way. People wanted to see what he was going to do before they did something.
“Albert is a little more charismatic, a little more joyful. He’s happy, smiling, enjoying his time. It’s almost like it’s rejuvenated him in a sense, getting to be on a really good team, getting to go to playoff baseball again.”
Pujols stated that he vividly remembers his personal mentors when he burst into the majors as a rookie in 2001. Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, “and my Latin guys — Placido Polanco, Edgar Renteria, Fernando Vina.” Then numerous others whom the Cardinals added through commerce: The Hall of Famer Larry Walker. Reggie Sanders. Woody Williams.
“I think it would really be selfish if I can’t pass the wisdom they gave me to these young players,” Pujols stated. “That’s something that I embrace and enjoy. It’s given me a new boost in my life. That’s what I’m telling them.
“The last four months here, I’m having more fun than I’ve had in awhile.”
He’s lived by means of and witnessed sufficient transition in the recreation that when his time got here, he stunned some by simply slipping into a brand new uniform and a brand new function.
“Listen, it’s not rocket science,” Pujols stated. “You’ve seen guys with this kind of role toward the end of their career. I know I’m not the player I once was. I think everybody knows that. But I think I can still contribute. That’s why I’m still wearing this uniform. Any time I have the opportunity, whether it’s in the field or in the dugout, I going to give my best to help this organization.”
To the Dodgers, these contributions have proved important. On a Sunday afternoon in August, as the Dodgers confronted off towards the Angels, Roberts rapidly summoned Pujols to pinch-hit for Justin Turner in the second inning after Turner strained his groin. Pujols responded with a two-run homer and performed first base the remainder of the means. It stays one in every of Roberts’s favourite moments from this season.
“There’s no entitlement with him,” Roberts stated. “And if there’s anybody who could feel entitled, it’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But he’s just one of the guys.”
Even if he’s not the participant he as soon as was, Pujols nonetheless brings a sure intimidation issue to the recreation that’s exhausting to duplicate.
“You pop that lefty, you know he’s going to come out of that dugout,” Braves Manager Brian Snitker stated of anticipated late-innings matchups. “You’re damn sure of where he’s at.”
How previous is Pujols, moreover 41? Scherzer is a St. Louis native who rooted for Pujols throughout highschool earlier than graduating in 2003. He was drafted out of the University of Missouri in 2006, the yr the Cardinals beat Detroit in the World Series. While each males are anticipated to be inducted in the Hall of Fame at some point, Scherzer, 37, stays giddy about sharing a clubhouse with Pujols, his one-time hero.
“It’s not normal,” Scherzer stated. “It’s not normal that I’m playing with Albert Pujols.”
Indeed, when the Dodgers had been in St. Louis final month, Scherzer took a second to corral Pujols for a photograph.
“I don’t care what you say,” Scherzer stated he advised Pujols. “I’ve got to get a picture with you in front of the Arch.”
Now, as Pujols steps into the postseason for the first time in seven years, he has each likelihood to make it extra than simply one other photograph op. Next up is another chapter towards, who else, the Cardinals.
“It’s crazy,” Pujols stated. “You can’t even write this up.”