Cardinals 8, Cubs 4: Albert Pujols nearly homers in next-to-last game against rivals

ST. LOUIS — When Cubs rookie Christopher Morel was a boy in the Dominican Republic, he often stood at the plate and imitated a superstar and countryman he deeply admired.

Feet spread extra-wide, rear end down low, hands and bat up high — that was how the great Albert Pujols did it.

Morel even imitated Pujols’ stance when playing “vitilla,” a baseball-like game played with the large, plastic cap of a gallon water jug in place of a ball and a broomstick in place of a bat.

“In the Dominican, I think Pujols is the one who sits at the top with the numbers that he’s put up,” Morel said through a translator Saturday before the Cubs lost 8-4 to the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

Maybe during Sunday’s series finale — as the first-place Cardinals go for a three-game sweep and a 13-6 finish in the season series against the Cubs — Morel can imitate Pujols one more time. It’ll be the Cubs’ final game against the first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, who, along with catcher Yadier Molina, will call it a career at season’s end.

“Since I’ve gotten to this level, it’s a privilege to be able to meet him or talk to him,” Morel said. “He tells me respect the game, love what I do and keep playing hard.”

Cubs teammate and fellow Dominican Franmil Reyes — recent recipient of yet another big, warm Pujols hug — calls the 42-year-old “the Machine.”

“We all, as Dominicans, admire him and want to be like him,” Reyes said, “not just to get to play like he [does] but get to be the professional on and off the field like he is. We’re always going to want to be like him. You can see a lot of players have success out there, but nobody respects them how they respect the Machine. That means a lot to all of us.”

Expect Pujols to be in the lineup or at least get an at-bat or two Sunday. Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol regretted not getting Pujols to the plate during his final game at Wrigley Field on Aug. 25. The Cardinals — running away with the division and 10-1-1 in their last 12 series — have far bigger fish to fry than the Cubs, but Sunday still has real symbolic and sentimental appeal.

Pujols has 58 career homers against the Cubs, more than he has against any other National League team. He would have 59 if his first-inning shot off Drew Smyly on Saturday didn’t die in left fielder Ian Happ’s glove with Happ’s back pressing against the outfield wall. It was so close to No. 695, but Pujols remained two homers shy of Alex Rodriguez’s 696 and six away from joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in the 700 club.

It will take something special for Pujols to equal the night Molina had in what almost certainly was his own final game against the North Siders. Molina singled off Smyly in the second inning and cleared the bases with a three-run double off reliever Jeremiah Estrada in the fourth, pumping his hands in the air above his head after chugging — ever so slowly — into second.

Then — come on, you kind of have to love it — the 40-year-old thorn in the Cubs’ sides went ahead and stole third base, just his second bag swiped this season. One couldn’t have scripted that maneuver.

But even bigger and better for Molina than all that: He was in the starting lineup as 41-year-old righty Adam Wainwright’s batterymate for the 323rd time, one shy of the major league record set together by the Tigers’ Mickey Lolich and Bill Freeham. Molina and Wainwright — who beat the Cubs for the 19th time in his career and, many suspect, will be back again in 2023 to try to add to that total — are projected to set the record on Sept. 14 against the Brewers at Busch. Molina also started a game at catcher for the 2,097th time, tying Carlton Fisk for second behind all-time leader Pudge Rodriguez.

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