MILWAUKEE — Some 22 years into his profession, slugger Albert Pujols said he works harder than ever in continuing to devise a game plan before he steps in the batter's box.
Between his hundreds of swings in the cage, his hours of pregame video work and the master class he teaches in the dugout while narrating pitch sequences, the future Hall of Famer said there is a method to his madness and a definitive reason why he is still having success at 42 years old.
On Sunday afternoon, Pujols experienced success when his intense preparation collided with the opportunity presented by Milwaukee’s Aaron Ashby hanging an 81.7 mph slider in the third inning. Pujols pounced on the mistake, hammering the pitch 426 feet at a 109.9 mph exit velocity into the left-field seats in the Cardinals' eventual 6-5 loss to the Brewers at American Family Field.
For that singular jaw-dropping moment to transpire in the series finale against the Brewers, so much background work came before what proved to be the 681st home run of Pujols' career.
“I’ve played this game for so long and it’s not just about going out there and hitting,” Pujols said. “You have to have a game plan. I don’t ever take that for granted — even after 22 years. I take advantage of the technology we have, and I go out there and trust my work. When I trust my work, something good can happen. If it doesn’t happen, that’s just part of the game, and I flip the page and get ready for the next [at-bat].”
Pujols’ enormous influence on the Cardinals can already be seen beyond the two mammoth home runs he's hit this season off left-handed pitchers. Sunday's blast helped push the number of pitchers he’s homered off of to 442 — seven shy of Barry Bonds’ all-time record.
Even with his three-run blast momentarily tying the game, Pujols’ best at-bat of the day might have been the walk he drew from Milwaukee star setup man Devin Williams to buoy an eighth-inning rally. After seeing what Pujols did, Paul DeJong and pinch-hitter Corey Dickerson similarly worked Williams deep into the count and drew walks that allowed St. Louis to pull within one run.
Now a designated hitter with extra time in the dugout, Pujols is constantly working with his teammates to make sure they are following the game and studying its tendencies. That’s a trick Pujols said he learned early in his career when he broke into the Majors in 2001, crafting 10 straight seasons of hitting .300 with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs.
“You don’t have your success just because of talent,” Pujols said. “There’s a lot of work you have to put into it, studying the game, seeing how the game goes and not just sitting on the bench and chitter-chatting.
“You never know when your chance is going to come and my job is to make sure that these guys are ready to go. Maybe there’s a chance or a situation where a guy will go out there and we need a big hit, but if he’s not focused on what is happening for seven or eight innings, he’s not going to be ready for that at-bat. That’s something I learned early in my career, I had success with it and I’m just having a good time with these guys. I’m glad they are open to [asking] questions and [being receptive to] what I have to say.”
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DeJong, whose six-pitch walk in the eighth loaded the bases, marvels at how Pujols lays a foundation for his success with his constant study.
“He is so confident in his approach and his zone and attacking his zone, that he doesn’t even flinch at balls out of the zone,” DeJong said. “I knew after the first inning when he struck out with the bases loaded, he was going to do something great after that, because he’s never satisfied. His mentality about the game and the way he sees it is special.”
What’s also special about Pujols is his willingness to adapt his stance and swing path over the past 22 years. Unlike early in his career when Pujols hit from a crouching stance with a wide leg base, he now lifts his front leg to create lower-body momentum.
The leg kick, Pujols said, was a product of the knee and foot injuries he experienced years ago. Now, through hours of cage and video work, Pujols has figured out how to totally reinvent his swing. And, as evidenced by Sunday’s smash, it’s a swing that still packs quite a punch.
“With the load I’m putting on my lower half now, it’s hard to mimic a swing from 21 years ago,” Pujols said. “I have to use what I have now and put that into my work. I’ve learned over the last two to three years to adjust to what I have now, and just go with it.”