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BenFred: Some of La Russa's old advice to Pujols helped Cardinals hero ambush No. 698

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Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss the Cardinals' chances -- real, or happy talk? -- of running down the Mets and Braves.

Tony La Russa will love watching Albert Pujols’ 698th home run.

There were many times many years ago, Pujols recalled at his clubhouse locker late Friday night, when his former Cardinals manager would get on his case about letting a ripe first pitch hit the catcher’s mitt without Pujols attempting to punish it with his iconic right-handed swing.

“He was always mad at me because I took a lot of first pitches,” Pujols said. “I still take a lot of first pitches. I feel like I’m a better hitter with two strikes. I go up there and if it’s not the pitch I’m looking for, I take it. Sometimes, you take a pitch down the middle, but that’s not where you are probably looking for it. Sometimes, the ball moves just a hair, and it kind of throws you off. I’m not an aggressive hitter. That’s always been me, since I was little, minor leagues, college, high school. I like to take pitches.”

There are, of course, exceptions.

Each one of Pujols’ 19 homers this season have become a stand-alone story, and No. 698 was no different.

Before the game, Pujols played catch with a former president. No kidding. Leonel Fernandez, former president of the Dominican Republic, was in attendance as a special guest of the Cooperstown-bound slugger. He left with an autographed game-worn Pujols jersey, the one Pujols was wearing when he launched his game-tying, 427-foot two-run homer against Reds reliever Raynel Espinal. The towering shot ignited what became a 6-5 Cardinals win.

“He’s a huge fan of mine, and I’m a huge fan of his,” Pujols said about Fernandez. “To have him here, to deliver like this, it’s special.”

Each Pujols homer can be described the same way. Special. Two (at least) big regular-season ones left to go. Already two clear themes have emerged.

First off, and most importantly, Pujols’ homers tend to coincide with Cardinals wins. It's not a coincidence, folks. Five of Pujols’ most recent six homers have been game-tying or lead-providing. The Cardinals are now 15-1 when he hits at least one, with Friday night’s example illustrating just how fast – 106.3 mph exit velocity, to be exact – he can ignite his team. Even when the offense has been searching.

“That was a big swing that gave the group confidence to get going,” Cardinals manager Oli Marmol said.

Paul Goldschmidt doubled and Nolan Arenado singled Goldschmidt home to cut the Reds' lead to two runs before the Pujols homer in the sixth. Goldschmidt doubled in a run and so did Arenado in the seventh as the two NL MVP candidates erased the brief tie a Reds solo homer restored following Pujols' blast. The evening included one of the finest defensive plays you will ever see, compliments of Arenado, along with an immaculate inning in the ninth from Cardinals closer Ryan Helsley.

And still there was no hint of debate or disagreement about what should go down as the evening's defining moment.

A game that could have been captured by Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty roughing up a dugout cooler after only lasting five innings, a sign of a championship-hungry club's frustration from struggling against the struggling Reds, instead became Friday Night Live. Broken glass was forgotten, replaced instead by throbbing eardrums.

“Every time he hits a homer, we need that homer,” Arenado said about Pujols. “Not only do the fans need it, us as the team needs it. It’s just Albert coming up clutch in big moments.”

There’s one more pattern that stands out.

Emphasis on one.

Pujols is punishing first pitches in his last season.

Of the 19 homers he has totaled so far in 2022, five have come on first pitches. That's more than 26 percent.

He is now averaging .458 with a .423 on-base percentage and 1.208 slugging percentage this season when he swings on the first pitch. That's a first-pitch OPS of 1.631. For context, Aaron Judge (57 homers and counting) has a first-pitch OPS of 1.574 this season.

“I actually wasn’t looking to swing at the first pitch,” Pujols said about No. 698. “I was just looking to try to get a good pitch to hit, and just reacted on it. That’s what happened. Sometimes, when you do that, you wish you could do that over and over again. You are more relaxed. You are just reacting.”

When Pujols came to the plate in the sixth, he was ticked. He had been hit in the numbers earlier in the game by Reds short-term starter Fernando Cruz. It was an accident – Cruz apologized repeatedly after the game – but it didn’t matter in that moment. Pujols was irked from being hit for the second time in the past three games. On top of that, Espinal's first strikeout against him in the fourth inning was stuck in his craw.

He did more than even the score. He swung the game. And perhaps unlocked an offense. Some of his home-run trots have been joyous. This one was menacing. The Cardinals followed his lead and found their bite.

Before Cruz hit Pujols in the second inning, he threw him an 86 mph slider for a called first strike. Before Espinal struck out Pujols swinging in the fourth, he threw him three consecutive sliders. Another Espinal slider started off Pujols' third at-bat.

Big mistake.

It hung in place. It never hit the mitt. The Cardinal Glennon sign beneath Big Mac Land caught it instead. 

Eighty-nine of Pujols' 698 career homers have come on the first pitch of a Pujols at-bat. There was a reason La Russa would nudge Pujols to ambush more often. He's elite at it.

In his last season back home with his Cardinals, with 700 homers within reach and the postseason rounding the corner, Pujols is picking the perfect moments to pounce, and he's feasting when he does.

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