Commentary: Pujols got his groove back in St. Louis

“Pujols no longer needs to play the leading role in attack, but thrives on familiar territory with his best friends nearby.”

ST. LOUIS — Tommy Edman put a baseball in the gap, and about 15 years fell off the clock.

Albert Pujols, 42 years old and never an option to leave first base like second base, made it all the way home. In a sprint that Usain Bolt would call slow-motion, Pujols proved another thing his naysayers were wrong when he signed the one-year, $2.5 million contract last month: He’s too slow.

He’s actually not that slow and really shouldn’t have a single naysayer in the city of St. Louis. He’s done much more to help the Cardinals than hold them back, holding his own as Nolan Gorman and Juan Yepez destroy the triple-A pitching. I don’t think Bill DeWitt Jr. will want his money back after the first few weeks. As respected baseball detective (author of Birds on the Black, the best Cardinals website in Cardinal Nation) Ben Cerutti said this morning, sample sizes are fun. Check out Pujols launch into 2022:

Three extra base hits per five games, according to Cerutti’s research. A walk rate that still manages to almost double his strikeout rate. It’s not as wild and consistently strong as it was in the earlier years of his career, but he can still punish baseballs. He can thrash misplaced pitches by Major League Baseball competitors. Check out the 426-foot love letter he punched for Cardinal Nation at Easter. That landmark home run made St. Louis light up a cigarette.

But there’s more to his season than a stat sheet: a collective study of the same guy, ten years later and somehow still producing. Here are a few ways Pujols is clicking back into St. Louis.

Minute Maid Park and Wrigley Field have some Albert baseball bruising, but there’s nothing quite like home, right?

For his career, Pujols scores 0.332/0.434/0.613 in the “new” Busch Stadium. He also hit “Old” Busch Stadium and hit 94 homers with 1,045 OPS across the street. One cannot forget this special comfort.

Remember when he came out with the Los Angeles Angels in 2019 and hit a home run to the left field pitches? The man has played a total of 862 baseball games in downtown St. Louis. The mental aspect of the game, especially for an older player, cannot be ignored. Pujols knows the fences, corners, gaps and locations of the country.

Losing weight in middle age is about as easy as saying no to the cookies at Russell’s on Macklind, so don’t forget that we’re watching a slimmer man compete in 2022.

Allow me to provide some context. Pujols is 42. I just turned 40 in February. I recently lost about 15 pounds through a battle with COVID-19 and a few other events. More running, less skittles, and a little more this and that. The point is, I’m moving much more easily in my workouts now, and the lighter feeling applies to any form of movement—especially around the bases.

Now we’re talking about a real machine here, as was Pujols’ nickname during his first stint with the Cardinals. You can see in this sprint around the bases on the Edman double that the weight loss has taken effect. Less sluggish means more slug on the plate.

Now all you have to do is watch my 10 minute fitness video on… Go on.

An underestimated aspect of the partnership is that Pujols no longer needs to save the day – even if he has already done so in the early weeks of the season.

Pujols doesn’t have to play every day and no, he won’t play against all right-handers. Add this to the mental element of the game. He goes into the clubhouse and sees Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and also a guy named Tyler O’Neill. Wrecking balls that can help the older hitter unload later in the summer. Let’s say Pujols hits a brick wall and needs a break, even if it’s just for a few games. Just when Goldschmidt gets going, the lineup is filled enough to give the part-time employee some rest.

Pujols is no longer at the top of the Boys of the Summer movie poster. Instead, he has the coveted “and” dot on the cast iron. Just another guy in a way, but also one who can still change a game in one fell swoop.

Where’s Pujols when he’s not playing? He sits next to his best friends Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Who smiled from ear to ear after the Milwaukee blast? Wainwright looking like a star.

Molina, who is experiencing a slower start to the season due to a lack of spring prep time and a sore knee, is always in the coaching bench alongside Pujols. You want to impress your best friends or challenge them in a playful way. That’s why you wanted to be around them in the first place: they keep you sharp and up to where you need to be. Can see the heat around the corner. Molina does that for Pujols.

It’s a special finale that I can talk about until November. If baseball is going to be fun, watching an older lion like Pujols try to impress his friends and us is exactly what the sport needs.

Yes I know. It’s early. Only more games will tell if this is a sick teaser trailer or just a huge teaser. One of the juicier parts of the regular season is its relentless longevity. The Cardinals are in the midst of a series of games where they won’t see an open date before May 9 unless it rains. A strong Pujols will help win some of these games.

Ladies and gentlemen, he’s not just coming back. Albert Pujols still has it.

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