LOS ANGELES — It was a packed home, an enormous 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 could 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, within the Dodgers dugout, main the cheers.
As soon as, within the days he was generally known as The Machine, Pujols commanded his personal stretch-run highlight. These large moments now principally belong to others, whereas Pujols focuses on what’s normally one nightly plate look, strategically positioned, in opposition to a left-handed reliever — although with Max Muncy injured, that would change in Wednesday’s Nationwide League wild-card sport in opposition to the St. Louis Dodgers at Dodger Stadium.
The Dodgers signed Pujols in Might, 4 days after his unceremonious release by the Los Angeles Angels and within the ultimate 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 within the postseason for the primary time since 2014 — and his first take a look at will come in opposition to his beloved Cardinals. His irritating finish with the Angels is fading from the narrative.
“No matter occurred with the Angels is what occurred with the Angels,” the longtime Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw mentioned. “However as quickly as he acquired right here, he embraced his function, which has been so large for us. I feel we wanted that. We would have liked that older veteran. He calls himself Tio, we name him Tio, that uncle-type serving to everyone out with hitting but in addition being a man who’s completely happy for you once you do properly, smiling within the dugout.”
Watch him throughout a sport — the smiling, the laughing, the cheering, the occasional late-innings laser — and he seems to have discovered the proper spot for himself.
Unquestionably close to the top of profession that has seen him accumulate 3,301 hits, 679 house runs and two World Sequence rings, Pujols, 41, sat within the Dodgers’ dugout some 16 hours after Seager’s blast and contemplated his surprising return to October baseball.
“Hey, hear, these guys have been going to have an excellent 12 months whether or not I used to be right here or not,” Pujols mentioned of his Dodgers teammates. “They’re only a actually good, proficient ball membership with nice managing, an excellent teaching employees, nice preparation and nice hitting coaches.
“I’m simply blessed to have this chance.”
In his first 11 seasons — all with St. Louis — Pujols made the playoffs seven instances, and went to the World Sequence in three of these years. Since 2011, he has been again solely as soon as. He spent most of these Octobers along with his spouse, Deidre, and their 5 school-age kids at house in Orange County, Calif. He not often watches TV, he mentioned, and that features the playoffs and World Sequence if he isn’t collaborating.
“I would catch an inning or two right here or there however I really feel the low season is a time to refresh and prepare your thoughts for belongings you wish to accomplish for the subsequent 12 months,” he mentioned. “To let you know the reality, I watch extra Caribbean baseball than the World Sequence — the winter league, stuff like that.”
Latest Octobers, he mentioned, have been spent along with his kids within the pool, using bikes, going to the seashore. The youngsters foyer for journeys to their favourite eating places and Deidre cooks quite a bit at house.
However this week, Pujols will commerce all of that for yet another fall in entrance of packed stadiums.
“You’ll be able to inform he appreciates being on this staff; he actually enjoys the success of everyone, being the tremendous elder-statesman,” one other Dodgers ace, Max Scherzer, mentioned, chuckling.
To place Pujols’s age — 41 — in context, 4 of this 12 months’s 10 postseason managers have taken up spots on the sector reverse him in earlier Octobers as gamers: the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts and San Francisco’s Gabe Kapler have been teammates on the Boston Purple Sox staff that swept Pujols and the Cardinals within the 2004 World Sequence. Boston’s Alex Cora was with the Dodgers throughout a 2004 division collection between Los Angeles and St. Louis. Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell confronted Pujols’s groups twice, in a 2001 division collection when Counsell was with Arizona and within the 2011 Nationwide League Championship Sequence when he was with the Brewers.
Two different key postseason figures even have intensive October expertise with Pujols: Tony La Russa, now with the Chicago White Sox, managed Pujols within 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 within the 2011 World Sequence that helped St. Louis to an exhilarating seven-game title.
“Was anybody shocked? Nooooo,” Washington mentioned. “That was Albert Pujols. You make dangerous pitches to Albert Pujols again then, you bought harm.”
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 in opposition to lefties, understanding he would finally be decreased to a veteran bat off the bench. The acquisition of Trea Turner and Scherzer from Washington on the commerce deadline in July, together with the return to well being of Seager and others, has certainly reduce into his taking part in time — however has made him no much less worthwhile.
“He sees lots of issues individuals don’t see,” mentioned Skip Schumaker, a bench coach for the San Diego Padres and a teammate of Pujols’s in St. Louis from 2005 to 2011. Schumaker referred to as Pujols the neatest participant he has ever recognized.
“He helped me such as you wouldn’t consider taking part in proper subsequent to me, telling me what to search for and, by the way in which, giving me the boldness that I might play subsequent to him on a championship staff,” Schumaker mentioned. “That goes thus far.”
The Dodgers rookie Gavin Lux has picked up on Pujols’s consideration to element, how even within the batting cage “each little factor issues, it looks as if he’s acquired all the pieces found out and I nonetheless see him speaking to hitting coaches.”
Throughout their run of eight consecutive N.L. West titles, the Dodgers have included a extremely profitable mentorship program, bringing in Chase Utley and David Freese on the finish of their careers earlier than Pujols.
“These three are all very totally different guys,” Kershaw mentioned. “They’re guys I’ve extra respect for than most I’ve performed with. Freeser was only a born chief and guys adopted him. Chase was the identical approach however in a quieter approach. Folks wished to see what he was going to do earlier than they did one thing.
“Albert is a bit more charismatic, somewhat extra joyful. He’s completely happy, smiling, having fun with his time. It’s nearly prefer it’s rejuvenated him in a way, attending to be on a very good staff, attending to go to playoff baseball once more.”
Pujols mentioned 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 varied others whom the Cardinals added by way of commerce: The Corridor of Famer Larry Walker. Reggie Sanders. Woody Williams.
“I feel it could actually be egocentric if I can’t move the knowledge they gave me to those younger gamers,” Pujols mentioned. “That’s one thing that I embrace and luxuriate in. It’s given me a brand new increase in my life. That’s what I’m telling them.
“The final 4 months right here, I’m having extra enjoyable than I’ve had in awhile.”
He’s lived via and witnessed sufficient transition within the sport that when his time got here, he shocked some by simply slipping into a brand new uniform and a brand new function.
“Hear, it’s not rocket science,” Pujols mentioned. “You’ve seen guys with this sort of function towards the top of their profession. I do know I’m not the participant I as soon as was. I feel everyone is aware of that. However I feel I can nonetheless contribute. That’s why I’m nonetheless carrying this uniform. Any time I’ve the chance, whether or not it’s within the subject or within the dugout, I going to offer my finest to assist this group.”
To the Dodgers, these contributions have proved very important. On a Sunday afternoon in August, because the Dodgers confronted off in opposition to the Angels, Roberts swiftly summoned Pujols to pinch-hit for Justin Turner within the second inning after Turner strained his groin. Pujols responded with a two-run homer and performed first base the remainder of the way in which. It stays one in every of Roberts’s favourite moments from this season.
“There’s no entitlement with him,” Roberts mentioned. “And if there’s anyone who might really feel entitled, it’s a first-ballot Corridor of Famer. However he’s simply one of many guys.”
Even when he isn’t the participant he as soon as was, Pujols nonetheless brings a sure intimidation issue to the sport that’s laborious to copy.
“You pop that lefty, you understand he’s going to return out of that dugout,” Braves Supervisor Brian Snitker mentioned of anticipated late-innings matchups. “You’re rattling positive of the place he’s at.”
How previous is Pujols, in addition to 41? Scherzer is a St. Louis native who rooted for Pujols throughout highschool earlier than graduating in 2003. He was drafted out of the College of Missouri in 2006, the 12 months the Cardinals beat Detroit within the World Sequence. Whereas each males are anticipated to be inducted within the Corridor of Fame in the future, Scherzer, 37, stays giddy about sharing a clubhouse with Pujols, his one-time hero.
“It’s not regular,” Scherzer mentioned. “It’s not regular that I’m taking part in with Albert Pujols.”
Certainly, when the Dodgers have been in St. Louis final month, Scherzer took a second to corral Pujols for a photograph.
“I don’t care what you say,” Scherzer mentioned he advised Pujols. “I’ve acquired to get an image with you in entrance of the Arch.”
Now, as Pujols steps into the postseason for the primary time in seven years, he has each probability to make it extra than simply one other picture op. Subsequent up is yet another chapter in opposition to, who else, the Cardinals.
“It’s loopy,” Pujols mentioned. “You’ll be able to’t even write this up.”