Former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez had watched Dominican star Albert Pujols play before but he never had seen anything like this.
Fernandez had hoped to come here for the 2009 All-Star game but couldn’t although he did see Pujols in Seattle when Pujols played for the Angels.
After catching a first pitch thrown by his countryman Friday at Busch Stadiium, Pujols made sure that wasn’t the highlight of Fernandez’s night. He was going to give the president a signed, authenticated game jersey but there was much more.
Pujols blasted homer No. 698 of his career in the sixth inning to tie a game the Cardinals would win 6-5 over the Cincinnati Reds. Fernandez was to head to New York on Saturday for other business but he had said he might have to cancel his plans if Pujols hit two homers to get even closer to 700.
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“I almost put the pressure on him,” said Pujols, who backed left fielder TJ Friedl against the left-field wall in the seventh. “I thought that was gone, too,” he said. “But, as you guys know, this place is tough.”
The Cardinals are 15-1 when Pujols homers. But he was hitting .198 in early July with just four homers. He thought he had been hitting the ball harder than that but said, “You have to keep trusting the process and know that things are going to turn around, hopefully. But if it doesn’t turn around, then you’re in trouble.”
Right-hander Reynel Espinal was the one in trouble in the three-run sixth capped by Pujols’ homer.
Former Cardinal player and coach David Bell can appreciate what he’s seeing. “When you love the game, and respect what players do and the difficulty of it, and then you see someone excel at that level and do it for that long at that high of a level, it’s amazing, really," Bell said. "The crowd was a big part of that. And if you're human, it's hard not to be moved by that even when you're on the on the wrong side of it.”
Paul Goldschmidt, the presumptive favorite to win the National League Most Valuable Player award, said there is more going for Pujols than the rush to 700.
“Obviously I'm sure he wants to hit as many homers as possible, but he wants to win,” said Goldschmidt, who had key doubles in the sixth and seventh after struggling lately.
“He's having a great year. He's not just up there playing just so he can try to get to certain milestones. When you look at the scoreboard at his numbers, it's incredible, you know. I don't care how old you are.
“He's not just kind of limping to the finish line. I don't know if dominate is the right word, but he's playing really, really great baseball out there.”
Goldschmidt pointed out that the 42-year-old Pujols’ work starts much earlier in the day than people might realize. “There's nothing accidental about his career. It's been so impressive,” said Goldschmidt.
“He makes adjustments. Not scared to try new things. He works as hard as anyone. He studies the pitchers. I can't say enough great things about him setting an amazing example for us.”
Then Goldschmidt asked, “How many baseballs have we collected this year between him and Yadi (Molina)”
But, just as Puols shined, so, too, did the Cardinals’ top two stars most of the season—Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.
Goldschmidt opened the sixth inning with a double to left center. Arenado singled to right and Goldschmidt scored to cut a Cincinnati lead to 4-2.
After Pujols tied the score and the Reds' Kyle Farmer untied it with a homer off JoJo Romero in the seventh, Goldschmidt doubled home Brendan Donovan with the tying run and Arenado blooped a double to left to send in Goldschmidt as the Cardinals took their first and only lead of the night.
Pujols’ home run came off a 453rd different pitcher. Five of his past six homers have either tied or put the Cardinals ahead.
“The guy doesn’t hit a meaningless homer,” said catcher Andrew Knizner.
The homer was the 476th for Pujols in the National League, breaking a tie for 10th with Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Willie Stargell, who hit all 475 of their home runs in the National League.
“That’s awesome. That’s pretty cool. Thank you for that,” said Pujols, when told.
Earlier, Pujols had been hit in the chest by a pitch, marking the 87th time he had been hit by a pitch as a Cardinal, tying Steve Evans (1908-13) for first in club annals.
“Good,” said Pujols. “Let’s break it tomorrow. Why not?”
Arenado admitted that he and Goldschmidt had talked about trying to get things going Friday as the team leaders. “Sometimes it’s a trap,” Arenado said. “Like, if we get going, then everyone else will follow. We put a little pressure on ourselves sometimes and we shouldn’t do that.
“But it was great to see us drive in runs and get rallies going.”
Arenado was on base when Pujols homered and thrust his fist into the air as pretty much everybody else did.
“Usually most fans, when the ball’s hit, get up. But they’re already up,” Arenado said. “It’s really one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
The crowd, which swelled the season attendance past three million for the 24th time in franchise history, then was treated to lockdown relief by Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley. Helsley gained his 18th save with an Immaculate Inning, getting three strikeouts on nine pitches. No Cardinal had done that since Jason Isringhausen in 2002.
Bob Gibson was the only other Cardinal to do it in 1969.
Arenado turned in what he thought was his best play of the season in the fifth when, with the infield in, he dived near the third-base bag for Donovan Solano’s smash and fired from his knees, throwing home over Farmer, who was about to slide, to Knizner, who made the tag for the second out.
“From my angle, I was just thinking about not hitting (Farmer)," said Arenado. “I said, ‘Wherever it goes, it goes. I just don’t want to hit him.”
Farmer said, “I mean, I think only he makes that play. I probably would have fallen on my face and had dirt in my eyes.”
And Bell, a former third baseman himself, said, “It’s one of the best plays I’ve seen. Not only to get to the ball, but to have the presence and the accuracy just to make a perfect throw.”
But Arenado had some making up to do, having made a wild throw after a barehand to set up a run in the third inning. “I was happy to do it after that stupid error,” he said.
Starter Jack Flaherty impressed manager Oliver Marmol with his ability to command his fastball and slider and Flaherty saw some good in the game, too.
"I thought I had really good stuff tonight,” he said. “ I made some bad 0-2 pitches, there were some balls that were put in play that just didn’t go at anybody. Got a couple ground balls that just found holes and were soft enough and that’s baseball.’
Flaherty fanned five, walked two and hit two and left after giving up three runs in the fifth.
After his exit, Flaherty took it out on the dugout refrigerator, slamming the door twice and breaking the glass, according to an observer near the dugout.
“Five innings,” muttered Flaherty. “Nobody wants to do that. Maybe guys like doing that elsewhere, but we don’t like throwing five innings here.”
The Cardinals have three games left in this home stand and then only three more at home the rest of the season. It is winding down for Albert Pujols.
“I’m going to be pretty emotional the last week or so when we come back from the road trip,” he said.
“It’s just a blessing to be back here and finish my career where everything started—and having a great year like I’m having.
“It’s just not the fans (at Busch). I have 11 million people in the Dominican Republic. . . and I can feel that energy every day. . I want to make my country proud every single day that I step on that field.”
Arenado said, “Every time he hits a homer we need that homer. Not only do the fans need it, (we) as the team needs it.
“The one thing that I’ve noticed this year is he’s just kind of different than everybody else. He’s just better than everybody else. He really is. There is a level to this game, and he exceeds that level. Back in the day, he was clearly better than everybody else. Just playing with him now, you can see why."
Reliever Chris Stratton gained his second victory this week due to a Pujols homer after retiring a total of three hitters in the two games.
Stratton, who played with Pujols briefly in Anaheim in 2019, said, "I'd like for him to stick around."