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Hochman: Cardinals' Albert Pujols reaches the Mount Rushmore of home-run hitters

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The Cardinals' Albert Pujols rounds the bases in front of Pirates second baseman Rodolfo Castro, after hitting his 697th career home run, on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022 in Pittsburgh. 

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. He’s too good. He’s too important and relevant. He was supposed pop into games here and there, a pinch-hitter against some southpaws, and maybe, just maybe, he’d get a hold of one like the good old days.

Instead, these are the good old days — Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols is hitting game-changing homers in the highest-leverage situations of a playoff race.

And thus, with his 18th homer Sunday, he’s done what seemed improbable in April (or heck, even in July) — he’s passed Alex Rodriguez for the fourth-most home runs in the history of Major League Baseball.

With 697 homers, only three players have hit more than Pujols has:

Babe Ruth.

Hank Aaron.

Barry Bonds.

And to think, if he had passed “A-Rod” while on the 2022 Angels or Dodgers or, really, any other team, Cardinals fans would’ve been happy and proud of their old hero. But he did it while on the Cardinals again. It’s mythical and surreal and real, all the same.

Pujols very well could reach 700 homers, which is a beautifully round number and robust milestone. But let’s stop and appreciate No. 697, surpassing Rodriguez, who, juiced or not, is a legendary talent.

Pujols’ long-ball longevity moved No. 5 to No. 4.

And there was No. 5 and No. 4 with the birds on the bat, the two aging legends hugging each other Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. After Pujols’ ninth-inning smash, Yadier Molina met him by the dugout, and the two squeezed each other, which surely squeezed out some tears on St. Louis couches.

The most incredible part of all of this is the importance of these home runs. If the Cards were out of it and he passed A-Rod, it still would be cool. If his homers came in blowouts and he passed A-Rod, it still would be cool. But these homers are clutch! They’re helping win important games. 

On Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Cards trailed 2-0 in the top of the ninth. After an RBI from Corey Dickerson (who has been Pujolsian since the All-Star break), Pujols drove in Dickerson with a two-run monster shot. Gave the Cards the lead.

Oh and come to think of it, how about Saturday in Pittsburgh? The Cards trailed 3-1 in the top of the sixth when Pujols tied A-Rod and tied the game.

Every homer seems to be a game-swayer: the two-run shot against the Cubs in the eighth, which gave the game its final score, 2-0; the solo shot against the Cubs in the seventh, which gave the game its final score, 1-0; and on Aug. 14, the biggest win of the year, when the Cards still were in an airtight race with Milwaukee ... and Albert homered twice against Brewers pitching, including in the bottom of the eighth, when his three-run shot gave St. Louis a 6-2 lead.

Entering Sunday, per Baseball Reference, Pujols had a .864 OPS in games categorized as “late and close.” Albert Pujols is hitting like Albert Pujols.

OK, should he then play every day? No. Credit manager Oliver Marmol for masterfully using Pujols this season in proper spots. Sure, there were games such as  the one last Thursday, when Albert went 0 for five at Busch. But for the most part, there has been an optimization of utilization. Consider that he’s not a regular starter, yet his 18 homers (in 252 at-bats) have him tied for 30th in the entire National League. For some perspective, Freddie Freeman has 19 homers in 543 while Josh Bell has 17 in 502.

What a ride this has been. Sunday’s homer vibrated phones and reverberated across the city. At the Ascension Charity Classic, played at Norwood Hills Country Club, word made it to perhaps the biggest Cards fan there — and that’s saying something, considering hats and even jerseys were spotted among the galleries.

“Yeah, I just heard — 697. That’s awesome,” said John Daly, the two-time major champion playing on the PGA Champions Tour. “I’m selfish — I want him to keep playing and get Hank Aaron’s record.”

For Cardinals fans, from the most-famous to the anonymous, Pujols' retirement season has been an unexpected thrill ride. These homers are meaningful to the St. Louis Cardinals, sure, and meaningful to St. Louis. He makes you feel young — with the joy you felt when he homered against the Expos or division-rival Houston. And he makes you feel old — because you think about Pujols being 42 now ... and then what your age is, too. But age is just a number because a 42-year-old man has 18 homers in limited play — and looks like he surely will hit at least three more.

To quote Terence Mann, the "Field of Dreams" character and fictional author of “The Boat Rocker," Pujols reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

And on Sunday, Pujols bypassed a legend, which only strengthened his own legend.

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