ST. LOUIS — Some players have hunches that they are about to do good things, and occasionally they are on the money. But when Albert Pujols has a hunch — and can back that hunch up with certifiable Hall of Fame credentials — opposing pitchers and even the Cardinals rookie manager had better take note.
Some three hours before Tuesday’s first pitch, Pujols left the batting cage and called his shot to Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol. Basically, Pujols told Marmol he was seeing the ball well and he was about to jump on the first pitch he saw and do some serious damage with it.
Pujols did just that Tuesday night, drilling the first pitch he saw from Daniel Lynch a Statcast-projected 368 feet into the seats in left field for the 680th home run of his career.
Pujols’ homer, combined with a two-run shot from Nolan Arenado and a three-run home run from Andrew Knizner, allowed the Cardinals to defeat the Royals 6-5 and improve to 3-1.
“You know, when you have 680 [home runs], sometimes you can make those calls,” Pujols said of predicting his first-inning home run. “I guess that was one of those where I felt good out there. I had a good feeling about the approach I was going to take tonight, and sometimes you get lucky and it happens.”
Pujols, 42, homered in a Cardinal uniform in a regular-season game for the first time since Sept. 22, 2011 — at a time when he had 445 home runs following his first historic stint in St. Louis from 2001-11. Now, 3,855 days later, Pujols homered again to move a step closer to 700 homers. Kansas City’s Lynch became the 441st different pitcher Pujols has homered off — second only to the 449 pitchers that Barry Bonds took deep.
For Pujols, he was overjoyed that his first home run of the season came at Busch Stadium and in front of fans that gave him numerous standing ovations on Opening Day. Many of those same fans roared for Pujols when he returned to St. Louis in 2019 with the Angels and 2021 with the Dodgers. He didn’t get a standing ovation in his first at-bat Tuesday, but he had the 40,398 fans on their feet after the ball left his bat at 96.8 miles per hour. That ovation included a curtain call, one where Pujols hugged his chest to show appreciation to Cardinals fans.
“The same thing I’ve always tried to communicate since I got here in 2001 — that I appreciate the love they have shown me my whole career,” Pujols said of his gesture. “It’s something that is very special to me. The city is special, and this organization is special. I just want to show the fans I appreciate them.”
Marmol gained a new appreciation for the predictive powers of Pujols after he announced he was going to hit a home run and then delivered. Pujols backed up the part about him feeling good about his approach at the plate with two other hard-hit singles to go along with the home run for the 241st three-hit game of his career.
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Predicting a home run and then delivering, however, was next-level stuff, Marmol said.
“He came up to me during BP today and said, ‘First pitch I see today, I’m hitting it out,’” Marmol said, still marveling some five-plus hours later. “I believed him. That’s the first time he’s done that with me. So, I’ll believe him next time, too.”
Pujols said he is hopeful Tuesday’s performance will ram home the point that he’s been trying to make since re-signing with the Cardinals midway through Spring Training — his return isn’t some rah-rah, farewell tour and instead a serious attempt to help the Cardinals win the 12th World Series title in franchise history. Pujols, of course, played a big role in some of that success during his first stint in St. Louis, winning two titles and three MVPs while with the Cardinals from 2001-11. Now, he said his entire focus is on trying to win it all again.
“I’ve been doing this for 22 years so I know what I need to do to get ready for the games and to be in this role, which I had last year,” Pujols said of being a DH and pinch-hitter. “The [nostalgic] moments were over when I signed here and on Opening Day. Now, the focus is about winning a championship. This is not about me; it’s about the Cardinals winning a championship. It was great on [Opening Day], but now my focus is the same way it’s been for 22 years — helping this organization win. The moments are great, but it will be better if we can raise a championship in October.”