As Cardinal fans, we have watched Pujols hit--for power and average--for ten years. Non-stop. It doesn't matter the inning, the situation, or the season. Albert Pujols hits. He hit as a rookie, as a one of the MV3, and as an MVP. He's the first player in history to start his career with ten consecutive seasons of a .300 average, 30 or more homers, and 100 or more RBI. Last season, in what is a down season by Pujols standards, the slugger led the league in two of three Triple Crown categories.
His greatness has been a blessing for a decade as he has been the constant for a franchise that evolved into an MV3, out of it, and into a new championship contender. This offseason, contract talks between the Cardinals' star and the club dominated the Hot Stove. We the fans were on pins and needles as the deadline for a deal came and passed without a contract agreed upon. And so the 2011 season was transformed into a contract year for the slugger. A part of us hoped and a part of us worried that Pujols may post his greatest season and, in doing so, place the cost of his services outside what the mid-market Cardinals could afford to pay. No one worried about a down year.
The season started unexpectedly. Pujols was slow out of the blocks, but we all knew that he would eventually heat up and reach his customary levels of production. This was Albert Pujols, after all, the Swiss clock of Major League Baseball. But his struggles continued. His SLG fell below .500 and his OBP floated around and sometimes below the .350 mark. Yet, the club won, and in a way never before accomplished in his career. The club was winning in spite of Albert Pujols. Yes, the club would win, but they would do so as Pujols grounded out at a rate that made many a fan wince. Winning is fun, but winning when your club is firing on all cylinders is a success all the sweeter. And the Cardinals' greatest cylinder was misfiring with startling regularity.
It weighs on you as a fan when the apple of your fandom's eye is mired in a super-slump months in length. We love Yadier Molina, neck tattoos and all, but Yadi shouldn't have a higher average, SLG, and OPS than The Great Pujols. It's wrong. It doesn't sit right and begins to wear on you. But it wasn't just Molina. Pujols sat as low as eighth on the Cardinals in batting average. In Pujols's ten seasons as a Cardinal, he had never not had the highest batting average on the club at season's end. As the Cubs arrived in the Gateway City on Friday, at .265/.335/.412/.746, Pujols owned a line more Schumakiavellian than Pujolsian.
As a fan, one knows that there will be slow starts and slumps just as we know there will be hot streaks. Pujols has had his "slumps," but they often consist of stretches of offensive production we wish other players in the lineup could achieve. A slump for Pujols never reached the length of time or the depths of production of the first two months of 2011. And now end appeared in sight. Not even BABIP offered unabashed hope. Pujols had a low BABIP for Pujols, but his incredibly high GB% suggested maybe the BABIP wasn't all that low. With each grounder, the dark cloud grew a bit, casting a shadow on the club's first-place run. The Cardinals are in first place, but...
On Saturday, Pujols put together what may be considered his first Pujolsian game of the 2011 campaign, uncorking a two-run homer, an RBI double, and then a walk-off home run on a low slider from Jeff Smardzija that looked all-but-unhittable as the Cardinals overcame their lowly if pesky arch rivals in extra innings. On Sunday, Pujols went two for four and provided another death blow to the Small Bears, clubbing a meatball from Rodrigo Lopez over the wall for the game-winner.
In his reaction to the home run off of Lopez, Pujols seemed to be in emotional unity with Cardinal fans. A player long the consensus best in the game had swatted a homer on a high-eighties fastball from a relief pitcher sporting an ERA near ten for one of the league's worst teams. And yet the crowd erupted in a way more ecstatic than expecting and Pujols admired the soaring drive as if he had found something he had lost and was relieved to see again--perhaps his swing?
The first baseman rounded the bases excitedly as the crowd celebrated and then he, an intense player not immune from subtle acts of self-satisfaction, high-stepped his way into the giddy group of his teammates that awaited him at the plate. His exuberance showed a side we have not seen in his first ten years. Pujols perhaps felt the way that many of us did, happy and a bit relieved--relieved that Pujols was once again performing Pujolsian feats that we may not have appreciated as much as we should have because they were so commonplace.
Pujols's dynamic weekend series has lifted his batting average and OPS to season-high marks of .278 and .826 respectively. After watching Pujols raise his average 13 points and his OPS 80 points in a weekend, we the fans are understandably giddy to see what he may do in the coming days, weeks, and months.