Monday, October 10, 2011
Updated: October 11, 3:20 AM ET
Albert Pujols put on a show in Game 2
By Jayson Stark
MILWAUKEE -- It's still Albert Pujols' world. The St. Louis Cardinals are just playing in it.
They don't know for how much longer. They couldn't tell you how many gazillions of dollars it will take to keep the guy from doing this stuff for somebody else's team next year.
All they know is, they're now back even in the National League Championship Series, at a game apiece. And they owe it to You Know Who.
Let the official record reflect that Game 2 of the 2011 NLCS should be forever known as The Albert Show, because that just about sums it up.
It may be true, technically speaking, that Sir Albert didn't get all of the Cardinals' 17 hits in their 12-3 scrunching of the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday night. He didn't drive in all 12 runs. He didn't scale any tall mascot sliding boards in a single bound. He didn't even seem to know all the words to the nightly "Roll Out the Barrel" sing-along.
But those minor details are pretty much irrelevant to what this night at the grand Octoberfest was all about.
This was about the best hitter in baseball just stomping on out there and taking over this series.
And when Albert Pujols decides to take over, said his teammate, Skip Schumaker, "everybody else can just take the day off."
So what did The Albert Show look like? Let's sum it up for you:
In his first trip to the plate, in the top of the first inning, he bashed a two-run home run into the second deck in left, complete with take-that bat flippage.
And in his second trip? Pounded a 390-foot, two-run double to the track in center that had Brewers center fielder Nyjer Morgan spinning like the late, great Schlitz Park carousel.
Then what happened in the third trip? Whaddaya think? Muscled yet another RBI double up the alley in right-center.
And in trip No. 4? More where that came from. Pujols completed his circumnavigation of the outfield by slicing a ground-rule double just inside the right-field line.
So that comes to three doubles, a homer, five RBIs and three runs scored, all in one historic evening. And that, friends, is a box-score line that doesn't come along every October. In fact, here's a look at just how rare it is:
How many men in history have erupted for four extra-base hits in one postseason game? Only three before Sir Albert came along: Frank Isbell in the 1906 World Series, Bob Robertson in the 1971 NLCS and Hideki Matsui in the 2004 ALCS.
Just two of them -- Robertson and Matsui -- added five RBIs along the way. Only one of them -- Robertson -- had a game like that when his team was trailing in the series.
But now there are two, because Albert Pujols' team was also trailing in this NLCS, following a messy 9-6 drubbing in Game 1. And Pujols was so testy and combative with his favorite media inquisitors afterward, we should have known something was up.
Well, when he reappeared Monday afternoon at Miller Park, even his manager, his coaches and his teammates had a feeling this might be one of those special Albert-being-Albert kind of evenings.
"He had That Look in his eye all night," said second baseman Nick Punto. "He had it before the game. I saw it early. I saw it in batting practice. I just think it's a quiet intensity about him. He doesn't have a whole lot to say. He had it in BP when I was talking to him. Just focused, real focused. Intense.
"I think he knew," Punto said, "how big today was."
So howww big was it? October is full of must-win nights at the yard. But for Pujols' team, this definitely qualified as one of them.
The Brewers hadn't lost a game at home this postseason (4-0). They'd spent Game 1 flashing that team-on-a-mission look that can make them look darned near unstoppable. And if they'd won again Monday to go up 2-0 in this series, the Cardinals' only hope for survival would have been to beat them four times in five games.
So how tough would those odds have been? The Cardinals might not want to know, but we'll tell them anyway. Since the LCS went to a best-of-seven format in 1985, 21 teams have lost the first two games of a series on the road. Just three of them came back to win and move along to the World Series. So this was huge.
Albert Pujols didn't know all those particulars when he hit the pillow Sunday night. But he admitted after this game that as he was lying there, thinking about what had just gone down at Miller Park, he was not a happy man.
"You learn from the mistakes that you make," he said, referring not just to an ugly loss but to a big strikeout and a bigger double-play ball of his own, both with runners in scoring position. "And [Game 1] was so tough, going to bed I was just thinking some of the opportunity that I could help our ball club to win."
Four extra-base hits later, the Cardinals sure liked the way he was thinking.
"He takes it personally," Cards manager Tony La Russa said. "That's why he hasn't changed, no matter his success or how much money he makes. I think he has a very strong responsibility system. He's responsible for himself, his family. He's got a very strong faith. So he's not going to let any of those people down."
And it was hard not to notice that Pujols picked this night to rise to the moment, only 24 hours after his most contentious exchange of the postseason with his good buddies in the media.
Just one night earlier, he'd berated them for trying to "fire up" this Brewers-Cardinals rivalry, as if we'd all been typing Nyjer Morgan's tweets ourselves. And he reassured anxious Americans that there was nothing ahead in this series but pure baseball and peace on earth, which came as quite a relief. And he promised, with almost total assurance, that he was about to make some critical "adjustments" at the dish.
When the St. Louis Post Dispatch's Derrick Goold pressed him on whether the Brewers -- who held him to a .250 batting average, .303 on-base percentage and only seven extra-base hits in 76 plate appearances this season -- might have succeeded in their quest to "contain" him, an agitated Pujols disputed that, and hinted he was about ready to go off.
And if he did, he asked Goold assuredly, "what are you going to say tomorrow?"
"Probably," Goold replied, "that you made adjustments."
"OK," Sir Albert retorted. "I'm pretty good at it."
Yeah, guess so. Almost as soon as he marched out for batting practice Monday, La Russa and hitting coaches Mark McGwire and Mike Aldrete looked at each other, as if they already knew what was to come.
"I paid attention," La Russa said. "He was fine-tuning his stroke. He really wasn't trying to hit the ball out of the park. He was just thinking about how he could have better at-bats. He's such a pro. So smart."
Then off this man went, just like he knew he would.
"That's the one thing about Albert," Lance Berkman said. "He definitely has an unshakeable confidence that is as much a gift as bat speed and power and all that. I mean, he believes in his abilities. And heck, why wouldn't he?"
|The Cardinals just patted Albert Pujols on the back and watched him work in Game 2.|
Berkman shook his head as he thought back on another of Pujols' fiery quotes after Game 1 -- this one his quick dismissal of any suggestions that the pitch Takashi Saito threw to get him to hit into that double play Sunday was any big feat.
"[In Game 1], he had a couple of tough at-bats, and I thought his comments in the paper were telling," Berkman said. "I mean, I wouldn't have the confidence to say, 'Seven out of 10 times, I'm gonna hit that ball out of the ballpark.' But he does. And he believes it. And then he comes out [in Game 2] and gets four hits and does hit the ball out of the ballpark. It's pretty amazing."
Then again, come to think of it, Berkman decided, it's not that amazing -- considering he's Albert Freaking Pujols.
"When a guy like Albert goes out there and gets four hits and drives in five runs," Berkman said, channeling his inner Jack Buck, "it's not like, 'I can't believe what I just saw.' If you get that from your No. 8 hitter, then we can talk about it with open mouth. But he's been doing it his whole career."
Yeah, well, not exactly. For all his many incomparable feats, Pujols hasn't been doing this his whole career. He has now played 1,705 regular-season games and another 63 postseason games. And only once before this had he ever gotten four hits and knocked in five runs in the same game -- and that was seven years ago.
But he's now hitting .440 (11-for-25) in this postseason. And he has now become the first player ever to have two games in the same postseason with at least three extra-base hits. (He hit three doubles in Game 3 of the NLDS.) But what Albert Pujols did Monday night supercedes any numbers in any box score.
It's one thing for Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryan to take over a postseason game, because they get to touch the ball 50 times a night. It's something very different for a position player to take over a postseason baseball game in just a handful of trips to the plate.
But not if you're Albert Pujols, it isn't.
"It's not unbelievable to the guys who play with him every day for the last few years, when you see stuff like that," Schumaker said. "But you still have to be in awe of a guy like that, and realize who you're playing with, because it's not going to come around again
And that, of course, sums up the dilemma of the Cardinals as they contemplate the franchise-altering decision that awaits them just over the horizon, when Pujols hits the free-agent auction house. Can they possibly let this man walk away, and unravel the inseparable bond between this franchise, its fans and its greatest attraction?
Well, if the dollars grow insane enough, maybe they can. And maybe they will. But every time they think those thoughts, don't they also have to think about this night -- the night the great Albert Pujols refused to let them lose this game, or this series?
"I'm a fan of baseball in general," Schumaker said. "So I watch everything he does. I watch batting practice. I watch [him] soft-toss. I think most guys do. So I don't want to anticipate him not being here -- mostly because I don't want to think about it."
And who could blame him? But pretty soon, they'll all have to think about it, like it or not. Pretty soon, it will be business season, not baseball season. But not now. Not yet.
For now, Albert Pujols has a baseball team he needs to load onto his back bumper and lug toward another World Series. And don't think he can't. Don't think he won't.
"Yeah, I think we just saw it," Punto said. "I think we saw it tonight. If anybody's capable of doing it, Albert is."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
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But you still have to be in awe of a guy like that, and realize who you're playing with, because it's not going to come around again
-- Skip Schumacher on Albert Pujols