This is the Ballpark. This is the place to be if you are a hitter and you want to do amazing things. And Saturday night in Game 3 of the World Series, Albert Pujols did them, in triplicate and at a level no man ever has.
In a 16-7 St. Louis Cardinals win, he homered three times, drove in six runs and had five hits — all tying World Series records. The third homer came in the ninth inning into the left field stands; it was a baby blow compared to his earlier blasts off the facing of the club level in left field and a line drive into the center field stands. His 14 total bases set a new World Series mark.
Yet though his performance was statistically unique, it also came with a pure bizarre Rangers Ballpark touch: all of his homers and RBI came after the Cards already lead 8-6 and, technically, constituted insurance runs.
Of course, nowhere on earth are insurance runs more valuable.
“Someday I hope I can look back and say, ‘Wow, what a game that was in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series,” Pujols said. But this isn’t yet that someday for him. It is still just one day in an undetermined World Series.
“It is pretty special, but you enjoy it for a minute, then get ready to play tomorrow,” he said. “I know Texas will show a lot of heart.”
In the Ballpark, hope never dies. No matter how far ahead, or behind you are, no lead — and no record — is safe.
Pujols’s last two homers were, to be candid, icing on his personal cake. For impact on a championship, they didn’t reach the three homers by Reggie Jackson in the Game 6 clincher for the Yankees in ’78. However, when the Pujols biography is finally written, this night will have as large a symbolic meaning as a statistical one. After all, who made the error in the ninth inning of Game 2 in St. Louis that put the eventual game-losing run in scoring position: Pujols, of course.
When he stayed in an off-limits area of the clubhouse and didn’t answer questions afterward, that, too, became an off-day controversy. “I was really embarrassed to be in the middle of that,” said Pujols, pointing out how his error and his flap with the press took attention off the pitchers in a 2-1 duel.
“This is the latest example of how great he is,” Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said. “In the dugout, guys were saying to him, ‘Have a day they’ll never forget.’ ”
So, now Pujols stands alone with Jackson and Babe Ruth (twice) as the only players with three homers games. Whether or not this is actually regarded, in time, as the best offensive game in World Series history — or a spectacular, come-to-the-party star turn in a blowout — may be determined by whether it is a punch to the gut from which the Rangers cannot recover.
If Pujols’s comeback from his Game 2 error, and his titanic 5-for-6 night, convinces Texas that it is on the wrong side of history — or Cardinals magic — then that’s where it may eventually land.
However, if the Rangers come back from these haymakers, then this night may be seen as equal parts Pujols majesty and Rangers Ballpark slapstick, especially if the next two nights here produce more football-like final scores. Maybe you have to be here to feel was a unique and goofy venue this is.
Pitchers have been trying to avoid the bump at the Ballpark from the day it opened and all the prognostications — that it would be a “fair” ballpark — turned out to be a cosmic joke. But sometimes you just can’t duck the joint.
This year, Rangers Ballpark ranked No. 1, as it often does, as the best place for offense in all of baseball, ahead of bandboxes from Philadelphia to Cincinnati, from mile-high Coors Field to the new Yankee Stadium, from Fenway Park to Wrigley Field. Short porch in right. Jet stream to right-center field — no matter which way the wind blows, it seems. And the wind always blows. Super-hot weather to help every ball fly farther. This place has it all.
When the second batter of the game, the Cards’ Allen Criag, hit a long fly to left field, Rangers Ballpark said, “That will be a home run into the 12th row of the bleachers. Please note, gentlemen, that it’s not really necessary to hit the ball quite that hard. Let me do some of the work.”
When the Rangers’ Michael Young and Nelson Cruz came to bat in the fourth inning and hit the kind of routine high liners to right field that are usually loud outs, the Ballpark did its thing. The flags said the wind was snapping from right to left, which would knock down both drives. Instead, both balls acted like they had “Titleist,” not “Rawlings,” written on them. They seemed to gain altitude and plunged into the first rows of the bleachers for tidy 375- and 376-foot home runs.
In true Rangers Ballpark tradition this evening was less about the blood theater of watching pitchers, previously considered stout fellows, quivering as they requested mound conferences from anyone with a suggestion or a bottle of antacids.
Few seats here are out of harm’s way, but the club level in left field is one of them. Since 1994, only 15 balls have been hit there, starting with current Cards hitting coach Mark McGwire, back in the day (’97) when he was constructed entirely of materials now used in spacecraft.
Entering Saturday, Pujols had played in 1,705 games in his career, but only three of them had been in this yard. He went 1 for 14 for a .071 average. This has, no doubt, grieved him for years. No one hits .071 here, not if they made you hit bowling balls. So, after sighting in his bat with a couple of barely-visible line drive singles that failed to achieve launch angle, Phat Albert got things figured out. Oh, how he figured them out: three times.
His first homer, worth three runs, hit the “facing” of the club level and was thus disallowed as a true “Club Level Home Run.” But, hey, Pujols has two more days here. Besides, when a 423-foot homer isn’t given its proper respect, what’s a free agent, in search of perhaps $230 million this winter, going to do but show you his wares. So, in the seventh, Pujols’s two-run homer “only” traveled 408 feet.
In light of his silence after Game 2, let it be noted that Pujols is always most expressive with his bat. His performance this evening spoke as eloquently of his greatness as Winston Churchill.