ATLANTA — The explanation of the move, unthinkable in baseball for the previous two decades, began months ago, long before Albert Pujols returned to the dugout late Wednesday night, replaced at a pivotal instance in the game with the bases loaded by a rookie.
It was discussed with the three-time MVP as the Cardinals made him an offer and discussed with him during spring and into the season as they outlined when he would be used. They needed his trust and buy-in and the team’s discipline because at some point an at-bat like Wednesday’s would arrive when, even with two hits in the box score and history on deck, there would be a better option at the plate for the Cardinals.
They would choose matchup over magic.
Not that the decision came any easier for the person making it.
“There’s a strong bias there when you’re talking about the best right-handed hitter of all time,” manager Oliver Marmol said late Wednesday night. “Yes, your gut is always going to tell you to let him hit there, if I’m being honest.”
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In the eighth inning of a game that had the Cardinals aching for runs on a road trip that has them lousy with losses, lightning had a chance to strike and reverse the polarity of the day, maybe even the week. The hitters at the center of their offense put a rally in motion. Sandwiched between two walks, Nolan Arenado singled, and the Cardinals loaded the bases with two outs against Atlanta reliever Jesse Chavez. On deck as rookie Juan Yepez drew the walk to load the bases was Pujols, 2 for 3 in the game and a .357 hitter against Chavez in his career.
Marmol made the call that he talked about all those weeks ago on the phone with Pujols. He sided with the numbers and the left-handed bat over one of the best right-handed bats ever. In a visually striking moment but a mathematically sound move, rookie Nolan Gorman replaced the future Hall of Famer with a chance to swing the game toward the Cardinals. Pujols returned to the dugout, took off his batting helmet, left his bat behind and draped his arms over the dugout railing to watch Gorman get that moment as the potential go-ahead run.
A groundout ended the inning.
“I think it’s (been) very honest and open with how he’s going to be used,” Marmol said. “I think the worst thing you can do is lack communication and honesty from the beginning because then there’s ambiguity all throughout. If you’re honest and keep communication throughout the entirety of the season, then, yeah, it’s a combination of coaching and receiving.”
The three runners left on base were the seventh, eighth and ninth of the game for the Cardinals. Gorman’s groundout was the fifth at-bat with runners in scoring position that did not yield a hit.
Despite Miles Mikolas’ matching Atlanta’s lefty Max Fried zero for zero through four innings, a couple of pitches in the fifth turned into a couple of home runs and that was the game. The Cardinals offense had opportunities but lacked finish in a 3-0 loss to Atlanta at Truist Field. The Cardinals lost their fourth consecutive game and scored three or fewer runs for the sixth time in their past seven games. The Cardinals managed seven hits Wednesday.
Pujols had two of them.
The Cardinals had two extra-base hits Wednesday.
Pujols had one of them.
Marcell Ozuna opened the fifth inning with a solo homer off Mikolas for the game’s first run, and three pitches later, Eddie Rosario hit a solo home run to double the lead. Rosario, the 2021 NLCS MVP for powering the Braves to the pennant, entered the game batting .096, and the home run was his first of the season. Consecutive doubles in Mikolas’ sixth and final inning widened the lead to where it stood in the eighth.
“That’s a World Series ball club over there,” Mikolas said. “Playoff-caliber team. You know those are going to be tight games that are going to be decided on just a handful of pitches. Do your best to not make any mistakes, but sometimes just one mistake and it’ll cost you.”
Pujols, 42, received the start at designated hitter against the lefty Fried — exactly the starts promised him when he signed — despite a frustrating stretch that has seen his overall playing time shrivel. Marmol was asked last month about the challenge of managing an aging superstar, one who is accustomed to greatness, who expects that next starburst of greatness to be one swing away because for almost 13,000 plate appearances it often has been. Marmol said his talks with Pujols were helped because “he knows where he’s at right now, he knows where he needs to be and he’s a very good self-evaluator.”
The Cardinals great entered Wednesday’s game with one hit in his previous 21 at-bats. He had not walked in a month. The spiral brought his batting average down to .189 and informed discussion earlier in the day Wednesday about how pitchers had shifted from challenging him with fastballs to taking him fishing with off-speed pitches under the strike zone.
Pujols had struck out in eight times in his past 22 plate appearances, 11 times since his most recent walk.
He was searching at the plate but still contributing.
“He’s still in there before the game cackling with the boys,” Marmol said. “He’s still pouring into Yepez and the other young guys. He’s watching the iPad during the game seeing if some of our (pitchers) are giving away anything. He’s still very engaged. He’s the same guy regardless of the results.”
There were many examples of that hours before first pitch Wednesday. He chatted with a reporter about his major-league debut and how he came just a few feet shy of that first home run. He asked about a story involving Stan Musial’s presence at Coors Field that day in 2001. He warned he may not answer his phone in retirement. He walked back from the batting in stride with Yepez, taking each step at the same time, and discussing hitting as they climbed.
And, batting behind Yepez, Pujols delivered as the Cardinals expected.
Despite the recent sag in his production, Pujols started Wednesday with a .265 average vs. lefties compared with .137 against right-handers. His OPS against lefties was .740, sixth-highest on the team. He added to that with a single in his first at-bat and legging out a double in his second at-bat. The double gave him 1,376 extra-base hits in his career, exactly as many extra-base hits as he has strikeouts.
His slide into second base also put him one step closer to tying Stan Musial for third all-time with 1,377 extra-base hits in the majors. Musial retired in 1963 with the major-league record, and it has since been surpassed by Henry Aaron (1,477) and Barry Bonds (1,440).
Those are the some of the numbers that define a career.
They are not the numbers that decide the next at-bat.
Two for two against the lefty, Pujols got an at-bat against a right-hander in the seventh because of the style of reliever. Submariner Darren O’Day comes from an angle that the available lefties don’t reach as well as Pujols’ best swing would. So he got that chance and popped up to slip to 10 for 74 (.135) against right-handers. In the eighth, with the bases loaded, Atlanta at least complicated the Cardinals’ options by using a reliever Pujols has some of the best success against — ever. No active player has more hits than Pujols’ 10 against Chavez, and in 30 previous plate appearances against the right-hander, Pujols had a .900 OPS. But his last extra-base hit against Chavez was two presidents ago. Four of those 10 hits came the year after Houston moved to the American League.
Marmol weighed those dated metrics against Pujols’ current production against right-handers and Chavez’s own splits. Left-handed batters are hitting .317 against the Braves veteran, slugging .483.
Gorman, who had the Cardinals' lone RBI in Tuesday's loss, went to the plate.
“The biggest thing is getting a pitch to hit, and I didn’t do that,” Gorman said. “I chased one and hit a groundball. Big situation for us to get something going. I didn’t do the job.”
The numbers were there.
The decision could be defended.
The result was not.
The potential for drama was denied for better data.
In his office after the loss, Marmol was asked about how readying Pujols to be replaced in the eighth inning of some game in July began back in March, and the manager described how “the conversations — I couldn’t ask for them to be any better.” Conversations. Clarity. These were the words that came up to describe how the Cardinals have approached Pujols’ use. Marmol was asked if consistency is also important. The manager referenced times when he did start Pujols against right-handed pitchers, as in Boston, or against the matchup because that gut feel rumbled and he wrestled with the allure of this being the moment Albert strikes.
“I’m not sure I’ve done that well, early on,” he said. “I think there have been moments I’ve given him that numbers didn’t support. And yeah, there is still a human aspect to this game. I think that’s an easy way to answer it. That’s the way I view it.”