Before the season starts, and no matter what sport you watch, there are always crazy trade rumours. Sometimes they are crazy because they are so unbelievable and some of them are just mean. The media links a beloved former player back to their original club, and everyone gets a bit misty-eyed. Well, when I saw those Pujols rumours, my eyes were dry. I was surprisingly calm about all of them. I mean, even if he did come back, he might not even play very often or be very good.
He walked into the outfield in Jupiter, Florida. He had the five on his back and the birds on his chest. “Yeah” by Usher started miraculously playing in the background. I immediately lost the plot. It was 2003 again, Albert Pujols is a Cardinal, and we are going to win the World Series.
Deep breath. Ok, maybe not, but maybe, though, right?
Now that we have just finished the first quarter of the season, how are the Cardinals doing? Fine, with signs of improvement in the second half, I guess? At the quarter mark, the Cardinals were 22-18 and a few games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. However, most of the teams that the Brewers have been playing are under .500, whereas the teams that the Cardinals have been playing are over .500. This will start to switch and give the Cardinals plenty of time down the stretch to catch up and possibly take over the NL Central. At the time of writing, the Cardinals are tied with the Brewers at the top of the division.
However, most of the highest highs (Paul Goldschmidt’s hitting) and lows (pitching) have nothing to do with Pujols being back. Weirdly, some of the high points of this season come from Pujols doing things that many of us who have watched him for decades have found rather surprising. One of those was his pitching debut on the 15 May in a 15-6 win over the San Francisco Giants. Now it maybe wasn’t the best pitching debut we have ever seen (it was however the oldest pitching debut since Lena Blackburne for the 1929 White Sox) with a 36.00 ERA (yes, you did read that correctly) and giving up four earned runs, but he did get the outs that the Cardinals needed without anyone really having to worry. Also, the novelty of it was definitely worth those four runs.
Also, Pujols stole a base on 18 May in a 4-11 loss to the New York Mets. I know technically that shouldn’t be newsworthy, but my goodness Pujols is glacially slow. Pujols is technically the slowest position player in all of baseball, which should be a surprise to literally no one. What I did find surprising (after two decades of watching him run) was that he now has at least one stolen base in every season he has ever played (except for the Covid shortened season). The more I thought about this, the more it actually makes sense. Pujols has such a good command of the game that he knows that despite how slow he is, he has time to take the base. So I’m adding a stolen base in a game the Cardinals lost as a Pujols high point because it’s actually even more impressive than it originally appears.
Then on 31 May in a 3-2 win over the San Diego Padres, Pujols comes up with a walk-off hit in the 10th inning. He sent the ball flying out to deep left, then smiled and pointing at the Cardinals dugout on his way past. It’s in these moments that the nostalgia really sets in, as having Pujols in your lineup still means that you have a strong chance to win a ballgame. And if you were being really honest, if your team were in extra innings with two outs, is there any other player that you would want at the plate?
At the time of writing, Pujols has played 39 games with 22 hits, 4 home runs, a .961 batting average and endless joy. It isn’t the most impressive stat set, but at the end of the day, this team should be good enough to win without needing to rely on him, and maybe that’s the best news of all. As we go through June, the Cardinals will likely get back some of their best players (Jack Flaherty, Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill) and will play most of their games against teams below .500, so these Cardinals might be about to take flight and are bringing Pujols along for one last ride.
Jennifer Annely is the St Louis Cardinals correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. Follow on Twitter @JenniferBarnes8