MILWAUKEE — He has games like this, Albert Pujols does, when the snarl on his face is a little more pronounced, and the flip of his bat after a home run swing has a little more arc to it, and there is never any question, even when there are MVP candidates in the other lineup, who the best player on the field is. At age 31, these games may come less frequently for Pujols than they did at 25. But they seem to be better-timed.
On Monday night, with his St. Louis Cardinals facing a precarious position in the National League Championship Series, El Hombre reasserted his dominance over the Milwaukee Brewers and, in a sense, the game of baseball. It’s not supposed to be as easy as Pujols made it look in the Cardinals’ 12-3 win at Miller Park in Game 2, which squared the series at a game apiece. Game 3 is scheduled for Wednesday night at St. Louis’s Busch Stadium.
Of the Cardinals’ first seven runs — during the competitive portion of the game — Pujols drove in five of them, on a two-run homer and three doubles, and scored two others, one of them when he barreled home from third on a wild pitch that bounced a mere 15 feet or so from the catcher, punctuating it with a hard slide into the pitcher.
Pujols became the first player since Hideki Matsui in the 2004 ALCS to amass four extra-base hits in a postseason game, and only the second in 30 years. And it came at a time when Pujols, hobbled by ankle and heel injuries, was starting to hear questions, much to his disdain, about his ability to make adjustments.
“This game is not easy,” Pujols said. “It’s going to raise you high and bring you down. The thing you need to do as a player . . . is just let the game come to you.”
Freed from the tyranny of the Philadelphia Phillies’ rotation of aces, the Cardinals are proving once again why they were the best offense in the NL during the regular season. After scoring just eight runs in their last three games of the division series (two of which were wins), the Cardinals have scored 18 in the first two games of the NLCS. Monday night’s game got out of hand when they piled on four runs on six consecutive hits against Brewers reliever Kameron Loe in the seventh — a sequence that began with Pujols’s third double.
“We were having relentless at-bats,” Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said, “and they were making some mistakes.”
The Brewers, who lost for the first time in five home games this postseason, suddenly appear to have some intractable problems as they head south to face three games at Busch Stadium. After Monday night’s dud from right-hander Shaun Marcum (four innings, seven hits, five earned runs) — a performance that, combined with a similar one in the NLDS, calls into question whether the Brewers can afford to give him the ball again in a potential Game 6 — their starting pitchers have a 7.61 ERA this postseason. That includes a 1.29 mark for Yovani Gallardo, who starts Game 3 for them on Wednesday night; take away Gallardo, and the rotation’s ERA is 11.51.
“I still have a lot of confidence in all our starters,” Brewers Manager Ron Roenicke said. “But I know we have to be on when we pitch to these guys.”
Marcum would claim the home run pitch to Pujols was a “good pitch,” and so was the pitch that produced the double. But that seemed to be a matter of perception. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, for one, was more critical, saying: “When you elevate [a pitch] in the zone to [Pujols], he’s going to make you pay for it. . . . [Marcum] still has nasty stuff. It’s just a matter of getting the ball down and executing.”
When Pujols left the ballpark Sunday night after Game 1, he seemed agitated and surly. He cut short his postgame media session after a reporter asked him about making “adjustments” in Game 2. “I’m pretty good at it,” the three-time MVP sneered before walking off. Earlier that night, Pujols had failed in perhaps the biggest at-bat of the game for the Cardinals, grounding into a double play in the seventh inning, with the Cardinals trailing by three and with two runners on base.
“Yesterday was so tough,” Pujols said of his Game 1. “Going to bed, I was just thinking some of the opportunity [in Game 2 to] help our ballclub to win.”
When he homered in the first inning Monday night, Pujols stood and admired his work for a good, long while, before finally tossing his bat aside disdainfully and making a slow jog around the bases. Perhaps Pujols’s preening stemmed from the intense dislike between the teams, or maybe he had simply forgotten what it felt like to connect: He hadn’t homered since Sept. 22, having gone a total of 54 at-bats during that stretch.
And when he doubled over the head of Brewers center fielder Nyjer Morgan in the third, driving home two more runs, Pujols clapped his hands and pointed to the sky. In one of the key sequences of the game, Morgan failed to make a pair of plays — one diving play coming in, and the leaping play on the Pujols drive going back — that, while not routine in any way, were catchable balls that, had he gotten them, would have changed the course of the inning, and perhaps the game.
“That ball was a BB,” Morgan said. “I can’t catch everything. . . . It’s part of the game. Sometimes you’re going to get spanked a little bit. You just have to hang in there.”
When the Brewers finally retired Pujols in the eighth inning, what was left of the crowd of 43,937 cheered sarcastically. Miller Park has witnessed 20 of Pujols’s 459 career home runs, regular season and postseason combined, and Brewers fans didn’t need a reminder of how good he is. But on Monday night, they got one anyway.