The Oklahoman

Pujols faces St. Louis as enemy

- Bob Nightengal­e

LOS ANGELES – They will be celebratin­g Albert Pujols one day alongside Musial and Gibson and Brock and all of the St. Louis Cardinals’ greats one day.

They will be retiring his uniform No. 5, which hasn’t been worn since he last played for them 10 years ago.

The Cardinals fansbase will be in Cooperstow­n when he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, proudly wearing that Cardinals’ cap.

But for one night, and one night only, Pujols is the enemy in St. Louis.

Pujols is representi­ng the Los Angeles Dodgers these days, a team that would love to ruin the Cardinals’ miracle comeback by extinguish­ing them in Wednesday’s wild-card game (8:08 p.m., ET, TBS) at Dodger Stadium.

The loser goes home for the winter. The winner earns a berth against the San Francisco Giants in the NL Division Series.

When he was abruptly released in May by the Los Angeles Angels, who would ever have imagined Pujols would suddenly emerge as a potential factor in this do-or-die game?

Then again, who could have envisioned that the Cardinals would be in this wild-card game three weeks ago? They went on a franchise-record 17game winning streak to rescue their season, which started right after a series against the Dodgers in St. Louis featuring a pep talk by Pujols.

“It’s funny, I talked to [manager] Mike Shildt when we were there,” Pujols told USA TODAY Sports, “and I told him, ‘Hey man, you need to motivate these guys. I think there’s a chance for them to grab a playoff spot.’

“I never thought they were done just because their organizati­on, and the way they prepare, reminds me of this organizati­on. The way they go about it. To see Adam [Wainwright] pitching the way he is, and Yadi [Molina] doing his thing, it’s great to see what they’ve done. It’s fun to see October baseball in St. Louis.”

If this were a movie script, of course Pujols would have been playing for the Cardinals, not against them, returning home where he was one of the greatest players who donned a Cardinals’ uniform in the first 11 seasons of his career.

He badly wanted to go back to St. Louis, and was more than willing to be a pinch-hitter and part-time player, just as he is with the Dodgers.

But the Cardinals never called. Simply, they didn’t see a fit.

The Dodgers, on the other hand, believed he was perfect.

“When Albert left Anaheim,” said David Freese, Pujols’ teammate on the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series championsh­ip team, “my initial thought was that this guy could end up a Dodger. I knew LA’s roster, I knew their interest in me as a right-handed hitter, I thought this guy could up a Dodger.”

Two other teams expressed interest, Pujols said, but he chose the Dodgers, knowing he could still stay home, with the opportunit­y to win another World Series ring. “For me at that time, after talking to my kids and my wife,” Pujols says, “we all agreed it was the right decision. It was a no-brainer. There were other teams, but this is the one that fit best for me. I wanted a chance to win another championsh­ip.”

Pujols, 41, understood the Cardinals’ reasoning for not bringing him back. They have an All-Star first baseman in Paul Goldschmid­t. They didn’t see a way to squeeze playing time for him. They believed it would have been a distractio­n, with daily questions asking whether Pujols would be in the lineup, and the fans clamoring for him, choosing to remember those glorious days.

Still, Pujols isn’t going to lie. He was hurt. He felt he deserved at least a phone call for an explanatio­n. Why couldn’t he relive that magic in St. Louis, just as he’s doing these days with the Dodgers?

“I have that chip on my shoulder right now, always,” Pujols said. “I didn’t have my best years over there with the Angels. Those things happen. I didn’t take anything for granted. I knew I wasn’t done.

“Just like now, I wear this uniform with pride and honor. I’m blessed to have the opportunit­y to wear it. And as long as I’m wearing it, I’m going to have fun.”

Pujols has been key for the Dodgers , hitting 12 homers with 38 RBI as a parttime player, including a .303 batting average, .606 slugging percentage and .953 OPS against left-handed pitching. He’s even more important for the Dodgers now with All-Star first baseman Max Muncy sidelined with an elbow injury.

Pujols’ greatest influence, his teammates will tell you, has been in the clubhouse. All-Star outfielder Mookie Betts says that Pujols reminded him to have fun again. Justin Turner picks his brain daily about hitting, life and the game of baseball. The young players gather around him soaking up his knowledge and dreaming one day they could have even half of his career.

“I had high expectatio­ns for what he’s done and the person he is,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says, “but I didn’t know how much he would be able to impact the culture here. I expected a productive bench player, but I didn’t see it to this extent.

“I’m telling you, the conversati­ons that he’s had, the way he goes about his day, is going to impact these players, young and old, for the rest of their careers. That is something I’ll be forever grateful. I’m just so glad I’m able to have him on my team.”

You know the man is revered when Dodgers Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer, a St. Louis native, grabs Pujols for a picture at Busch Stadium – making sure the Arch was the background.

“I’m going to get that picture signed, that’s all I want signed from him,” said Scherzer, who joined the Dodgers at the July 30 trade deadline. “I pinch myself every day playing with Albert. It’s crazy, because I was a huge fan of his when he first broke into the big leagues.

“I was still in high school when that happened. So, all of these years later to somehow be on his team is nuts. It’s even more fun now because now I get to talk baseball with him and understand what makes him great.”

 ?? ASHLEY LANDIS/AP ?? Dodgers pinch hitter Albert Pujols singles against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday in Los Angeles.
ASHLEY LANDIS/AP Dodgers pinch hitter Albert Pujols singles against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday in Los Angeles.
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States