Albert Pujols — in final at-bat against Cubs — crushes homer No. 695; Cardinals win 2-0

ST. LOUIS — It’s not easy to lose a game in unforgettable fashion when you’re 22 games under .500 and the season is winding down, but that’s what the Cubs did Sunday. After the sting wears off, they might even look back on it as having been kind of cool.

And if they don’t, it doesn’t even matter — because what Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols did on the final swing of his career against the Cubs was nothing short of legendary.

Pinch-hitting in the eighth inning of a scoreless game, Pujols obliterated a fastball from reliever Brandon Hughes for a two-run homer — his 695th — that would’ve been more dramatic only if it had been a walk-off. Busch Stadium erupted, and the Cardinals went on to complete a three-game sweep with a 2-0 victory.

“It’s pretty special, obviously, but what is special is that we came out with a win,” said Pujols, who needs one homer to catch Alex Rodriguez for fourth place on the all-time list and five more — with just 28 games to go — to join Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in the 700 club.

With a runner on second and one out, Cubs manager David Ross elected to pitch to Pujols rather than put him on first base. With the crowd electric as Pujols walked from the on-deck circle to the plate, Ross visited the mound — drawing boos — and told rookie Hughes to attack with his best stuff. Two pitches later, Hughes was No. 451 on the list of pitchers Pujols has homered against.

“It’s a game-losing home run,” Hughes said, not appreciating the momentousness of the occasion one bit. “I’m the losing pitcher. It’s a home run.”

Should Ross have opted for a free pass instead? Not with Paul Goldschmidt, a lock for National League MVP, lurking two batters behind, was the manager’s thinking.

Before the game, according to Pujols, Cardinals broadcaster Rick Horton told him he was going to hit a pinch-hit homer to win it. After sending the ball over the bullpen in left — a 429-foot blast — Pujols couldn’t wipe the ear-to-ear smile from his face as he circled the bases.

“That was the last thing playing in my mind,” he said, “and I couldn’t believe it happened.”

Even before it did, the game was outstanding thanks to starting pitchers Miles Mikolas and Marcus Stroman. Mikolas mowed down the Cubs for eight shutout innings. Stroman held serve through seven on a season-high 98 pitches.

Stroman got some defensive help with an usual double play in the second inning. After an error on a soft bouncer by Christopher Morel at third put Corey Dickerson on, Morel was unable to snag a on-hop smash off the bat of Nolan Gorman that went for a hit. But with runners on the corners and one out, Morel charged an Andrew Knizer dribbler and — with Dickerson about to break for home — threw across his body to first baseman Alfonso Rivas, who then delivered a dart to catcher P.J. Higgins for a bang-bang out.

Stroman was terrific from there. Mikolas may have been even better. Then Pujols came along and blew their performances out of the water.

“He’s one of the legends of this game,” Stroman said. “He has surpassed generations.”

The Cardinals are cruising toward 90-plus wins and a division title, and not even Pujols’ quest for 700 means more than what this team might be able to accomplish after that.

The Cubs, meanwhile, can only be relieved the season series is over. The Cardinals won it 13-6, their best record against the Cubs since 1985, when they went 14-4 en route to the World Series. The Cubs — who lost the last six games at Busch Stadium this year — haven’t gotten the better of their rivals head-to-head since 2017.

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