The ball scorched off Albert Pujols’s bat, and the Washington Nationals’ varied problems ceded briefly to history. Their slipshod defense, their propensity for early deficits, a suddenly slumping offense and a rotation that may be in flux faded as Pujols’s teammates streamed from the Nationals Park visitors’ dugout and marched to the plate. As Pujols stepped on home plate, he pointed both index fingers to the sky.
In the Nationals’ vexing 7-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, Pujols blasted two of Taylor Jordan’s pitches over the fence and became the 26th player to reach 500 home runs. His 499th homer helped bury the Nationals in a four-run hole after the first inning. No. 500, a missile over the visitors’ bullpen in left-center, created another four-run lead for the Angels in the fifth inning.
Pujols tipped his helmet to the crowd as he waded through teammates back to the Angels’ dugout. The 21,915 fans at Nationals Park rose and cheered until Pujols emerged again, a curtain call for perhaps the best right-handed hitter of his generation, a slugger who reached 500 home runs at a younger age than anyone in baseball history other than Jimmie Foxx or Alex Rodriguez.
“It’s pretty special,” Pujols said. “To have over 19,000 players who were in a big league uniform and to only have 26 players to do this, it’s pretty special.”
“It’s a huge milestone in the grand scheme of baseball,” said Nationals Manager Matt Williams, who hit 378 career homers in his playing career. “You don’t want it to happen against you, for sure. But I admire the man. I admire his ability and I have for some time. I just wish he would do it against somebody else.”
The crowd shuffled out of the yard with a fond memory, but also a queasy feeling about its hometown team. The Nationals offered Jordan little support on either offense or defense. They added another two errors to their MLB-high total, both throwing errors by third baseman Anthony Rendon. The left side of the Nationals’ infield has committed more errors than 15 entire teams had committed entering Tuesday.
“I’m baffled,” Williams said. “What do you do? You just keep doing what we’re doing. You just keep working at it.”
For the second straight night, the Nationals managed two runs on only three hits, shut down Tuesday for seven innings by left-hander Tyler Skaggs. The Nationals scored twice in the third, but failed to creep any closer into the game after Jayson Werth’s run-scoring double play with the bases loaded.
“That didn’t help,” Werth said.
Jordan may have endangered his spot in the Nationals’ rotation, allowing six runs, four earned, on eight hits in five innings. Tuesday afternoon, Doug Fister completed another successful step in his rehab from a lat strain, and he is on pace to return in two weeks.
The Nationals also have former starter Ross Detwiler in their bullpen. Williams said he would consider shifting Detwiler back into the rotation, but indicated it was doubtful.
“Would we ever consider it? Of course, we would consider it,” Williams said. “But not because of tonight. . . . But to make that drastic change right now, I don’t think we would do.”
Assuming Detwiler stays put, Fister’s imminent return will still force the Nationals to make the decision that Fister’s injury, late in spring training, delayed: Should Jordan or Tanner Roark claim their final rotation spot? Roark bolstered his cause Monday with 6 2 / 3 scoreless innings, dropping his ERA to 3.80. Jordan’s ERA rose Tuesday to 6.23.
Jordan has left too many sinkers high in the zone, which turns an effective pitch into batting practice. His average velocity has also dropped, from 92 mph last year to 89.5 this season.
“I’ve noticed it,” Jordan said. “I don’t know what the cause of it is. But if I can get my sinker in the location that I want it, velocity shouldn’t really matter too much.”
The damage Tuesday night started immediately, as has happened so often to the Nationals. As Rendon made his first error and Pujols ripped a three-run homer down the left field line, the Angels took a 4-0 lead before the Nationals had taken a turn at bat. Another remarkable figure: For the eighth time in 21 games, the Nationals allowed multiple runs in the first inning.
“Over the course of a whole season, it’s very difficult to come back that many times,” Williams said. “And it wears on you a little bit.”
With home run No. 499 cleared, the umpires performed a small ritual each time Pujols stepped to the plate. They inserted a new ball into play, with a tiny “P” stitched into the horsehide above “Rawlings,” so MLB could authenticate which ball had become an artifact.
In 2010, still a St. Louis Cardinal, Pujols hit his 400th home run, at Nationals Park, off Jordan Zimmermann on the day the Nationals announced Stephen Strasburg needed Tommy John surgery.
“What’s so special is to be able to hit 400 here and to be able to hit 500,” Pujols said. “That’s something that’s pretty special. Today, I was in the batting cages. I had a good feeling that it was going to be a special day. As players and athletes, you just have a feeling.”
In the fifth inning, after Mike Trout lashed a single to left, Pujols lumbered to the plate again. Jordan started Pujols with a fastball for a called strike. Two more fastballs made the count 1-2. Jordan tried to locate his sinker outside the zone, low and away, but it stayed level and belt-high. Pujols smashed it, holding his iconic follow-through — chest proud, arms out — as the ball blazed through the chilly air and into the tables in front of the Red Porch.
Tom Sherrill, a 29-year-old Californian in town for a week of Air Force training, grabbed the ball. He would later give it back to Pujols, who savored the accomplishment.
“I can respect it, that’s for sure,” Werth said. “Albert’s had a great career. You never enjoy seeing other people hit home runs off you, but that’s a special moment in the game.”
Pujols’s milestone cemented the outcome, and for one night the Nationals could use history as a buffer for their problems. But Wednesday, sitting at one game above .500, they would need to start figuring them out.
“We’re fine,” Werth said. “We’ll figure this out. It’s early. It’s April. You can only say that for so long, though.”