‘Tough number to fathom’: Cubs host Albert Pujols as he approaches home run No. 700

Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols stood in center field surrounded by a trio of younger Cubs players: Christopher Morel, Nelson Velazquez and Franmil Reyes.

”He’s one of the best guys in the Dominican [Republic],” Morel, a fellow Dominican ballplayer, told the Sun-Times of their pregame conversation this week. ”Having the time to say hi, for me, is super-special.”

Pujols’ farewell tour and quest for 700 career home runs converged this week at Wrigley Field during a five-game series between the Cubs and Cardinals. He logged homer No. 693 in the series opener Monday.

In the midst of the home-run countdown and Pujols’ final trip to Wrigley as a player, his influence over the course of a 22-year career was also on display. Take his warm greeting of the Cubs’ Zach McKinstry, a short-time teammate with the Dodgers, on second base Tuesday as another example.

Said Cubs outfielder Rafael Ortega, who overlapped with Pujols on the Angels in 2016: ”When you said ‘Pujols’ to me, it’s unbelievable. His career, as a person, as a player, everything, Pujols has been an example for all the Latin players.”

Outfielder Ian Happ witnessed Pujols’ gravitational pull firsthand as he held court during the Home Run Derby this year — Happ was serving as Kyle Schwarber’s ”towel guy” in the event — and in a pregame talk before the All-Star Game the next day.

”It was awesome to see how much fun he was having,” Happ said. ”And for a guy who has accomplished so much in the game and been around so much, played with so many guys, it seemed like he was really humbled by . . . experiencing that. It felt like he was enjoying every second.”

It didn’t seem to matter that Pujols, an 11-time All-Star, had soaked in plenty of such moments before.

”I think that’s the most important thing I learned from him: how he loved the game,” Ortega said. ”Because it’s a hard game, and you’re going to have some bad times. But to have [success], you have to love what you do. And if you love what you do, your bad times are going to be fewer than your happiest.”

As the last season of his career winds down, Pujols is playing as well as anyone — literally. He won co-National League Player of the Week honors last week for going 8-for-13 with three homers and seven RBI.

Then he came to Wigley and delivered the only run of the game Monday. The pitch he hit was a sinker at about eye level, seemingly safely out of the strike zone.

”It’s exactly where I was trying to throw it, maybe a little more in to jam him a bit more,” left-hander Drew Smyly said after the game. ”I was thinking, ‘Just change his eye level and don’t let him hit it.’ ”

Morel was impressed.

”It’s unbelievable,” he said. ”This pitch, off a lefty guy, and he made good contact to left field and homered? That’s why his nickname is ‘The Machine.’ ”

Pujols’ homer Monday was his first against Smyly. With it, he tied Barry Bonds’ record with homers against 449 pitchers.

”He’s Albert Pujols,” Smyly said. ”He’s the GOAT. He’s one of the greatest of all time. And he finally got me.”

Now, with two games left in the series and about six weeks left in the regular season, Pujols is seven homers away from 700. Morel told Pujols on Monday that he hoped he would reach the milestone before retiring.

Happ, who reached 100 career homers Sunday, took a few moments to ponder what that would mean.

”That’s a tough number to fathom,” he said. ”Seven hundred? Whew.”

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