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Cardinals' Pujols was punchless, hitting .198 in July — but just take a look at him now

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PITTSBURGH—Through the first 87 games of the season, several games past the halfway point, Albert Pujols was hitting .198 and had four home runs.

Now, having made history on Saturday night, tying Alex Rodriguez for fourth all-time in home runs at 696, he is on the cusp of more. If he hits four homers in the next 22 games — and he is getting another start at first base on Sunday— Albert Pujols will have 700 for his career.

On July 9, this hardly seemed possible.

“I don’t think anybody could have predicted this magical experience,” said president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, who signed the 42-year-old Pujols to a $2.5 million one-year contract late in spring training.

“But for all of us who get to experience it, it’s incredible.”

Since July 10, Pujols has hit .326 with 13 homers. After not hitting any home runs in June and none in the first nine days in July, he is harassing National League pitchers as he did a decade ago when he was the marquee player in the league.

“You sit there and watch it and ... you’re so glad it happened. You’re happy for him. It’s amazing," said Mozeliak. 

Mozeliak and the Cardinals famously lost Pujols in a bidding war to the American League and the Angels after the Cardinals' World Series championship in 2011. Who knew he would ever come back?

“You never burn bridges,” Mozeliak said. “There probably are a few little things you should take away from this, right?

“It was great that we stayed close enough where it was able to happen. But, for him to have the kind of season that he’s having is just remarkable.”

In early July, no way. In mid-September ... way.

“Great players do great things,” Mozeliak said.

Barry Bonds had 762 home runs. Henry Aaron had 755. Babe Ruth had 714. There is nobody else ahead of Pujols. 

“It’s pretty special,” said Pujols. “I think I’m aware of where I am in the history of the game. But ... 21 years ago, when I made the ball club, that wasn’t something I was chasing. Twenty-two years later, I don’t think I’m going to change my approach.

“I think I’m just going to let things happen and try to enjoy it. If it happens, it happens. If not, at the end of the day, I think everybody, including myself, are pretty blessed with the career that I had.”

Pujols, following a Tyler O’Neill single, ripped a JT Brubaker slider 418 feet to left in the sixth. His 17th homer of the season tied at 3-3 a game the Cardinals would wind up beating the Pittsburgh Pirates, 7-5. Two innings later, Pujols would single for his third hit, again to tie the game.

“I’m excited that I tied the ball game,” said Pujols. “I don’t care who I tied.”

He was also excited to share the 696 moment via a hug with Molina, whose single in the ninth would ignite the three-run, game-winning rally capped by a bases-loaded double from Nolan Arenado, who had had a rough night previously. Arenado will have a day off on Sunday. 

“(Molina) has been like my little brother these last 20 years,” Pujols said. “To be able to share this moment with him and being back here for my last year and his last year is pretty special.

“I’m just enjoying it, really observing and soaking everything in because in a few months, we’ll be taking these jerseys off and we’re not going to put them back (on).”

No one else will be wearing Nos. 5 and 4, either. 

For his career, Pujols has 33 homers at PNC Park, most by any visiting player and he is 14th on the list for anyone who has played there in 22 seasons —visitors or Pirates. But he did not answer the plea for a curtain call by the fans behind the Cardinals’ dugout.

”I still think you have to respect the other side,” Pujols said. “I don’t think I’ve ever done that (a curtain call) on the road. If it was at the end of my career, maybe I would have come out but you have to respect the other side.

“There’s a line that you don’t cross in this game. That was the line right there, in that moment. I have a lot of respect for this game and a lot of respect for the guys that I play against.

“Hopefully, the fans don’t get offended by that. Hopefully, they get to understand why.”

Pujols did wave to the fans when he came out for a pinch runner after his game-tying single in the eighth.

Manager Oliver Marmol, who did his part in the game by making six defensive changes at once before the eighth, praised Pujols’ decision. “If we were at home, that’s one thing. You respect the other team’s home," he said.

In the field, as Pujols is giving Paul Goldschmidt two days off from playing first base, Pujols also made a diving stop to help Jack Flaherty, who had a bumpy beginning.

Citing something veteran coach Jose Oquendo had told him early in his career, Pujols said, “No matter what kind of at-bat you have, you still have to go out there and play defense. That’s something I can say I’m proud of.

“I probably don’t have the same movement as I had when I was young. But I still put myself in position to try to make a play.”

Numbers are numbers, said Pujols, who insists he didn’t come back because of them. He wants one more Red October.

Saturday’s win, the Cardinals’ 82nd, ensured that the club will have its 15th consecutive winning season.

“We haven’t finished anything,” said Pujols. “We’re just starting. We don’t focus on winning records. We focus on winning a championship trophy.

“Is it going to be easy? No. But we’re going to try to put ourselves in a good situation to compete with anybody that we can."

Flaherty can help in that regard. He gave up two homers in the first two innings on bad fastballs to Rodolfo Castro and Jack Suwinski but worked the final three innings in scoreless fashion. He walked four and fanned nobody for just the second time in his 95 starts. 

But he did keep his team in the game. “It was just a real team win,” he said. “I didn’t pitch great. But I was able to strand some runners out there. You try to go as deep in the game as possible.”

Closer Ryan Helsley, who allowed his first earned run on the road in the ninth inning, saluted Flaherty for not buckling. “Down three (runs), he very easily could have given up right there and given up a couple of more," Helsley said. 

Flaherty did admit that his command “was terrible. It was not a great game command-wise.”

That he didn’t strike anybody out wasn’t a big deal, said Flaherty. “The bigger deal is to hold them to three runs, no matter how it happens. It does not matter," he said. 

Marmol said he wasn’t worried about Flaherty’s lack of strikeouts. “Not yet,” he said.

“Not yet.”

When he wasn’t on the mound, Flaherty had a front-row seat. “That was fun,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to see from Albert. That was a big home run, too. Every one he hits is important

“Every time he gets up there, you see history.”

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Rick Hummel is a Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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