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How Albert Pujols pulled himself to the cusp of 700

Albert Pujols entered Saturday with 698 career home runs. (Joe Puetz/AP Photo)

ST. LOUIS — Anyone who knows baseball knows better than to expect a perfect ending. Baseball is too wily for that.

When Albert Pujols ambled back into the St. Louis dugout this spring to join Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright for one last Cardinals ride — well, what more could anyone ask for? After all, decades in the daily baseball habits had whittled even the mighty Pujols into something less than he once was. Just being there, surviving long enough to come home with anything left to give, was something.

But those daily baseball habits also include nightly alignments of the baseball stars, which have conspired to tug Pujols into consequential moments with regularity. They have done so enough that one September afternoon, in what would be Pujols’s final game against the rival Chicago Cubs, Ricky Horton, of the Cardinals’ radio broadcast team, couldn’t help but wonder.

“If you were writing a script for this game, for Albert’s final game against the Cubs, I think the script would be him hitting a home run in a nothing-nothing game late,” Horton said, and Pujols, who was heading to the cages to take a few swings in case the Cubs brought in a lefty for the eighth, heard him.

“He said he stopped and listened to it and was like, ‘Yeah, that would be cool,’ ” Cardinals Manager Oliver Marmol recalled. A few minutes later, after a standing ovation when he emerged in the dugout and another when he stepped into the on-deck circle, Pujols hit that homer.

“That’s why I was smiling all the way when I hit first base all the way to home plate,” Pujols said then. “That was the last thing that was playing in my mind. I couldn’t believe it happened.”

What is happening for Pujols now, as he entered Saturday two homers away from 700 in a season he began with seemingly no chance to get there, is as unbelievable as it is in line with exactly who Albert Pujols used to be. In the first half of the season, Pujols hit .215 with a .676 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. In the second half, he entered Saturday hitting .328 with a 1.109 OPS. If he had enough at-bats to qualify, he would have the second-highest second-half OPS in the majors — behind only Aaron Judge.

Pujols does not have enough at-bats to qualify because, until recently, the Cardinals were not using him regularly. They planned to win the National League Central and do so without vintage Pujols. He hasn’t been that kind of hitter in quite some time, and Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt made up one of the sport’s most potent one-two punches in the middle of their order. The Cardinals didn’t need vintage Pujols.

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“When we originally signed him, we were going to have him face as many left-handers as possible and that’s it,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “But the fact that he’s had some really impactful at-bats of late against right-handers, that has us all rethinking a little bit. And obviously, fans are coming and want to see him hit. Luckily, I don’t have to make the lineups. But maybe [Marmol] has a little more pressure on him than he did two or three months ago.”

Marmol, 36, is younger than Pujols, 42. He is a first-year manager in a city that doesn’t exactly allow anyone to ease into its baseball business. And he has spent his first year on the job building a reputation for being remarkably straightforward, bordering on blunt. So when he says he is building his lineups to win games, not hearts — to give the Cardinals the best chance to chase down the NL East leaders for the second seed in the NL playoffs and the bye that comes with it — he is convincing.

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“The pieces have just fallen in a way where Albert is swinging a really good bat regardless,” Marmol said. “When I sit here and do the lineup, my main focus is how do we win tonight, but that’s not to say I don’t pay attention to what’s going on. But my first filter is how can we win.”

Through that filter, playing Pujols against right-handed pitching as opposed to holding him to face a good lefty late wasn’t always the right choice this season. But lately, Marmol thinks, it has been.

Although Pujols hadn’t been in the lineup against Milwaukee Brewers ace Corbin Burnes the other three times the Cardinals faced him this year, Marmol put him there this week. He noted that he could have used strikeout-prone Tyler O’Neill against strikeout wizard Burnes but that Pujols strikes out far less frequently.

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But no one at Busch Stadium would have needed much explanation. Cardinals fans, picky and meticulous with their baseball as they are, aren’t exactly clamoring for Marmol to pick his spots and sit Pujols more often.

“Yeah,” Marmol agreed. “I don’t think I’ve seen a Facebook page for that one.”

But while they didn’t plan for it, no one around the Cardinals is surprised by what Pujols is doing — at least, not any more than he is.

“If you watch his batting practice, you’re like, ‘This guy can still hit bombs,’ ” Tommy Edman said just moments before Pujols hit a handful of batting practice fastballs into the third deck Thursday afternoon. That has been true of Pujols for years, even as his numbers slowed.

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He showed off that power in the Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium, where he advanced to the second round with a controversial win over Kyle Schwarber, though Schwarber wasn’t worried about scoring controversies as he raised and lowered his arms in praise of Pujols as the veteran moved on.

As young stars such as Juan Soto and Julio Rodríguez electrified the Los Angeles night, they did so while showing reverence to Pujols, the most prolific Dominican power hitter in history. Soto and Rodriguez were there because of what they bring now and what they may bring to the sport in the future. The commissioner’s office named Pujols to the roster to honor his past.

And to that point, Pujols’s on-field performance mattered far less than his mere presence. Hitting .215 didn’t stop teams from showering him in memorabilia and playing tributes on video boards along the way. He didn’t need to be great again to feel appreciated. He didn’t need to carry the Cardinals to be treasured.

But in the weeks since that point, even as a pile of No. 5 jerseys that need signing accumulates near his locker, with the names of eager big leaguers who requested them taped on top, even as crowds stand every time he steps into the box, Pujols’s season became less about his legacy and more about his present.

“When he was named to the all-star team, I feel like that energized him,” Mozeliak said. “If you look back to that point in time to where we are today, success on the field is something that just started organically happening. I think with that comes confidence. Now I think he sort of believes it.”

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Belief that Pujols could get to 700 came slowly and steadily for those in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, who never saw Pujols treat this season as a victory lap. His routines are the stuff of legend: the infrared sauna, his willingness to incorporate coaching into his analysis of his swing, even though he was so trusted here in his earlier years that he called his own hit and runs.

Pujols tells teammates to practice in ways that make them feel confident when they play, and for him, that often means doing his work against high velocity — practicing at game speed or faster, rather than tweaking things against a batting practice fastball.

“It’s something you would just expect a good major league hitter to be doing to prepare. Not something you think of for someone at 42. I think about that all the time because we were born in the same year,” Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert said. “I’m watching this thinking: ‘Man, this is so amazing. This is impressive.’ ”

Albert and others around the Cardinals point to the same few Pujols swings when they realized something special might be on the way. The Alberts (Jeff and Pujols) knew on a sacrifice fly in Atlanta just before the all-star break that the adjustments they were making to help him stay through the ball better were settling in, that his timing was back where he needed it to be.

Edman and Albert both recalled the low line drive Pujols hit against Kevin Gausman in Toronto in late July, the one that flew more than 400 feet to dead center — the kind of righty-righty swing he wasn’t supposed to be delivering these days.

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There was the two-homer day against the Brewers in Milwaukee and the game-tying homer against the Pittsburgh Pirates last weekend. And there was that swing against the Cubs, the one that left Pujols almost laughing as he rounded the bases, while his manager and his teammates watched the man who has done some much for the game and franchise realize this may end the way he wanted after all.

“That was a different emotion to him after that home run,” Marmol remembered. “You could see it was like, ‘Holy cow, that just happened.’ And he just smiled and laughed as he rounded the bases like ‘I can’t believe that just took place.’ ”

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