JUPITER, Fla. — A short list of historic names and one circled number found on Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol’s notes hinted at the news he was prepared to announce Monday morning.
Next to Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski and Hank Aaron was Albert Pujols.
The circled number on the page was 22.
As in, Pujols’ opening-day start at designated hitter on Thursday for the Cardinals against the Pirates will become his 22nd consecutive opening-day start since he made his major-league debut with the Cardinals in 2001. Rose (23) is the only player higher on that list. Pujols on Thursday will tie Yastrzemski and Aaron (22).
The company is iconic. The moment will be among the most memorable in the long, proud history of Cardinals baseball. The debate about how to best use this 42-year-old version of Pujols? It can take opening day off.
Every other time Pujols starts against right-handed pitching, which he has notably struggled against in recent seasons, can be questioned with good reason. On paper, the numbers suggest left-handed designated-hitter option Corey Dickerson would be the more practical play against right-handers, such as Pirates opening-day starter JT Brubaker. Unless perhaps Pujols has had success in the past against said right-handed pitcher.
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He’s never faced Brubaker. But Thursday is going to be one of those games in which the story is bigger than the statistics, and no one should be surprised if Pujols makes Marmol look smart for seeing beyond the splits.
“It’s meaningful,” Marmol said. “We can sit here and talk about match-ups. One, we are in a good spot with Albert playing against a righty. And two, it’s meaningful, for a couple of reasons. One, because of that (opening-day) record. And, the place is going to be kind of loud that day.”
Some will grumble about this being an example of the Cardinals turning the first game of the season into prioritizing the narrative over the numbers. On pretty much any other day, I would tend to agree. But for opening day, my advice for all is to follow the advice of Miles Mikolas. The Cardinals’ Game 2 starting pitcher will be watching along with you all. He just will have a better seat.
“Might have to put a popcorn machine in the dugout, or something,” said Mikolas, who added that Pujols’ multiple standing ovations could add up to 15 minutes to the game length. “Maybe grab a beer or something. Take in the show.”
Sorry, but I don’t blame Marmol one bit for not wanting his introduction as the new Cardinals manager to come as the guy who became the first manager to bench Pujols on an opening day. Especially this opening day.
This isn’t just a Pujols return, remember. It’s the launch of one last season shared between Pujols, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. It’s the first full-capacity-allowed home opener since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s going to be a party. And I won’t be surprised, at all, if Pujols sends what is bound to be an electric atmosphere into overdrive by hitting career home run No. 680 in his first game in a Cardinals uniform since he helped them win their last World Series championship, in 2011. I wouldn’t encourage you to bet on it, but ...
Some of the optimism is based on Pujols’ proven tendency to rise to the occasion while playing in front of a wired Busch Stadium.
Some more of it is based on signs Pujols has shown since he joined the Cardinals on a one-year deal late this spring training.
“It’s further along than I thought, as far as timing, and just how he feels,” Marmol said of Pujols’ right-handed swing that still crushes left-handed pitching. “He came in shape, running around. He feels good, looks good. He’s gotten a lot of at-bats back there (on the back-fields). That has been helpful for him from a seeing-it standpoint. He does a lot of his stuff off the machine in the cage, where he feels like that is his best prep work. I like where he’s at, I really do.”
Pujols, batting fifth, faced a right-handed starter in Nationals Joan Adon at Roger Dean Stadium on Monday. The Cardinals lineup looked a lot like the one Marmol will send out against the Pirates on Thursday, except Pujols was playing first base and Paul Goldschmidt was the designated hitter. Flop those assignments, and things looked game-ready. So did Pujols.
In the bottom of the second inning, he detonated an Adon offering far down the left-field line, just foul, before finding himself down in the count. He recovered to punch a 2-2 slider into left field to score Nolan Arenado from second, which became the first run scored in a 4-3 Cardinals exhibition win.
“I don’t get 2,000-something RBIs (2,150) because I hit with nobody on,” Pujols said. “I think I know how to drive in runs.”
In his next at-bat, Pujols spit on two out-of-the-zone sliders before barreling a 94 mph four-seamer from Adon into centerfield. The ball left his bat at 110 mph. Another good sign.
“Good day for him,” Marmol said.
The manager wasn’t looking for confirmation, but it could not have hurt to have some instant reinforcement from Pujols against a right-handed pitcher.
“That’s their decision, the front office and, obviously Oli, whether he puts me out there with righty or lefty,” Pujols said. “I don’t write the lineup (card). My job is to be ready to play whenever my name is called. If not, be ready on the bench, helping my ball club. Cheer. Come in and get a pinch-hit here and there. I did that pretty well last year. I’m not expecting to play 162 games. I know that. I’m not 21 years old anymore. But I feel that whatever chance they give me, I’m going to get the best out of it.”
Game two through 162 will be ripe for analyzing the match-ups. Dickerson over Pujols against right-handers will be the wise decision more often than not. But if the Cardinals can’t beat the lowly Pirates in what will be one of the most memorable home openers in recent memory, they have bigger problems than justifying hitting Pujols against a righty. Give the majority of the people what they want, and don’t be surprised if Pujols provides an exclamation point.