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Pujols' 3-homer night one for the ages
For decades, Reggie Jackson set the standard by which World Series feats were measured:
Game 6, Yankee Stadium, Oct. 18, 1977. Three swings, three home runs. An iconic curtain call. A wave, a tip of the cap, a smile that said he owned October.
On Saturday night — 34 years and 4 days later — Albert Pujols out-Reggied Reggie.
It happened at the home of a franchise that was in its infancy on the night of Jackson’s heroics, a ballpark not accustomed to hosting history like this.
Babe Ruth, who did it twice, was once the only man to hit three home runs in a World Series game. Then Jackson joined him. But by the numbers, what Pujols did in the Cardinals’ 16-7 romp over the Rangers in Game 3 was the greatest of them all.
Pujols had five hits, two more than Ruth and Jackson.
Pujols had six RBI, tying a World Series record.
Pujols had 14 total bases, setting a World Series record.
And he did it in a manner that reminded us of what Howard Cosell called out to the nation, as Jackson rounded the bases more than a generation ago: “How this man has responded to pressure! He’s answered the whole world!”
Twenty-four hours before, Pujols was (briefly) the most vilified player in baseball. He was hitless during each of the first two games. He committed an error in the ninth inning of Thursday’s Game 2, which abetted the Texas rally that tied the series. He didn’t speak with reporters afterward, prompting criticism for his lack of postgame accountability. He had an awkward response to the maelstrom, telling reporters Friday that his only responsibilities were to God and his family — thus omitting the organization, the fans and the game at large.
So we wondered how Pujols would respond to the vise of a 24-hour news cycle, beneath the brightest lights, during what might be the final days of his Cardinals career. A base hit or two would have been sufficient. A homer would have been mythical.
This was arguably the greatest night of hitting in postseason history. And it was as if his teammates expected him to do it.
Matt Holliday: “I kind of plan on him doing something special every night.”
Skip Schumaker: “I feel like he’s going to do that every day.”
Yadier Molina: “No surprise.”
The most intriguing reaction of all, though, came from Pujols himself. In response to the first question of his postgame news conference — and yes, he had one — Pujols talked about the “huge night” enjoyed by Allen Craig and Molina. When asked about the record for total bases, the first words out of his mouth were, “That will show you the kind of ballclub we have.”
This was a superstar, declining comment on his greatness. Pujols almost refused to talk about himself after the crowning moment of his 11-year career. Was he punishing the media for what he perceived as unfair treatment? Perhaps. But this was quintessential Pujols, too. He loathes talking about his accomplishments. He is, in that way, the anti-Reggie.
In a similar circumstance, Jackson would gloat to the cameras, marinate in the spotlight and grin at his critics — who, naturally, would have no choice but to smile back.
That’s not how it went with Pujols in the bowels of Rangers Ballpark late Saturday night. I asked him if the media attention leading up to Game 3 gave him more motivation than usual.
“Not really,” he replied. “What can I say? To tell you the truth, I just come and get ready to play. I’ve been in that situation before where people just blow things out. It is what it is. You can’t really think about that. My main focus is we are in the World Series.
“The sad part was that you got two great, quality pitching (performances in Game 2), and nobody talked about that, about Jaime (Garcia) and (Colby) Lewis. Nobody talked about that. They just concentrated about that I left the clubhouse — when I was there for 25 minutes (and) nobody approached me. That’s pretty sad.
“I feel embarrassed that everybody was just focused on that, and I was in the middle of that, when you had Jaime out there throwing one of his best postseason games ever and you had Lewis doing the same thing against a tough offense. I was really embarrassed, to tell you the truth.”
In other words: If the columns and sound bites had fueled him, he wasn’t about to give us the satisfaction of knowing it.
But to one keen observer, it was obvious just how much incentive the media provided Pujols.
“He was irritated — I saw it in his eyes,” observed Frank Thomas, the retired 500-homer slugger now working as an MLB.com analyst. “There was so much made of his press conference the other day. Trust me, he was ready. The guy has tremendous pride. He was locked in.”
Pujols’ night began innocuously enough, with a groundout to third base. At that moment, he was 0-for-7 in the World Series. But then he started swinging as if his bat was dipped in lore.
He rapped a single to left, then wired a line drive into shallow center. By the time Pujols came to bat in the sixth, the evening had all the continuity of a junior high basketball game in which neither team was playing defense. The Cardinals led 8-6, but it hardly felt secure. Texas manager Ron Washington inserted Alexi Ogando, hoping that his sizzling fastball might keep the Rangers close enough.
Instead, it was their undoing.
Ogando tried to handcuff Pujols with a 96-mph heater, but it crept over the inside corner. The pitch was high and in such a precarious location that Schumaker figured most hitters (himself included) would have been lucky to foul it off. But Pujols is not most hitters. He turned on it with such ferocity that the ball struck the facing of the second deck in left field — an area reached on occasion during batting practice but rarely during games.
With one swing, Pujols did what no other man could: He brought order to chaos. St. Louis took an 11-6 lead, Texas never seriously threatened to make a game of it again and a silenced sellout crowd of 51,462 had to wonder if the game’s greatest player had just issued a message to every last witness.
“When you poke the biggest bear in the forest,” Thomas said, “you’re going to get the loudest roar.”
In the end, it hardly mattered that he didn’t duplicate Jackson’s feat of turning the trick on three straight swings. After taking Michael Gonzalez deep to left in the seventh, Pujols came up in the ninth with one last chance at immortality. He faced Darren Oliver, one of the few active players old enough to remember what Reggie did in the Bronx 34 years ago.
They dueled to a 2-2 count before Oliver tried to put him away with a fastball. Pujols saw it well but couldn’t square it up, resulting in a high foul ball near the home dugout. Texas first baseman Mike Napoli chased it down and seemed to have a play, but it drifted a row or two into the crowd.
Pujols would have another chance.
“I saw the look on his face,” said Holliday, who was then in the on-deck circle. “He thought he should’ve hit that one out. He kind of smiled like, ‘That could have been the third one.’
“And so he did it on the next pitch.”
Of course he did. The ball came to rest in the left-field stands. Soon you will memorize the precise location, much like Reggie’s ball bounding on the black seats at Yankee Stadium. There is a special place in history for nights like this.
The irony is that we’re not even sure how the story ends. We don’t know if the Cardinals will win the World Series, or if Pujols is weeks away from bolting St. Louis as a free agent. But this much was certain on Saturday: The highlight reel of indelible October moments is now three swings longer.
“He’s the best player ever — to me,” Molina said. “Don’t be surprised if he puts on a good show tomorrow, too.”
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