Chris Carpenter, Albert Pujols, and the plays we remember

No matter how tough Chris Carpenter's luck got--no matter how old, eventually, he gets, and looks--a game like that won't surprise me. He's Chris Carpenter, and that's what he does: Pitch games that don't seem dominant until they're nearly over, and look incredibly indignant while doing it. Lately he also goes almost self-consciously deep into games, and that was there, too, overlaid over the Carpenter I'll always expect.

I think that's why baseball players last so long in the public consciousness after their own retirement; they seem at least occasionally capable of the things that define them until the moment they retire, no matter how far from it they really are. (When Carpenter slumped in his DIPS-defying way I was more concerned about the ability of the baseball universe to maintain its general balance than I was Carpenter's ability to put a fastball on a corner.)

Now he was a little less perfect, peripherally, and considerably more successful, and the Cardinals, thanks to Mark Hamilton's looper and no thanks to the Schumakerian slide he made into first base (Take heart, Skip: whenever someone slides unnecessarily into first base or hits for an empty .280 average, you'll be there), were more successful still. But in that moment when Scott Rolen reacted instantly and then threw a perfect fastball to first base I was as sure he had actually, somehow made the play as I was in 2002 and will be in 2015, or whenever it is he retires.

Which brings us to Albert Pujols, who on Monday gave the world renewed cause to run those "I'ng not a maching, I ang just Alberg" commercials when he suggested he could be back as soon as today for an injury that was supposed to cost him a month.

There's something different about Pujols. His hook isn't that he can locate his fastball impossibly well and pitch a hard nine in important situations, or that every so often he'll make a play that no other third baseman would even have the tools to attempt. It's that he's perfect, all the time, in every baseball-related thing he does.

A single impression is one thing--it's repeatable and it's malleable, so that if you threw a 50-year-old, limping Jim Edmonds in center field and started hitting pop flies eventually he'd go over his shoulder in such a way as to make your half-shirt-craving heart skip a beat. But perfection can only decay, and if you're neurotic enough that's all you can see in it.

So for myself, if not anything else, here are a few things I hope I'll see, intermittently, when I watch Albert Pujols for the rest of his career--no matter how perfectly things are going at a given moment.

One: When he hits a home run, the pitch tends to look terrible. This is weird, because I count on Pujols's ability to hit any kind of pitch at any time, but I think it's just a side-effect of how perfect his swing is; he looks like he's hitting off a tee, and the pitch, no matter where it is, lands right on the tee just before he pulls it out of the park. An unbalanced hitter, a guy with a lazy-looking uppercut, might take a great pitch and hit it 500 feet, and you think: Well, not much to be done about that. But Pujols's swing makes everybody's fastball look like Dave Weathers's mistake.

Two: He does things because it's like he knows we know he's Albert Pujols. If Ryan Theriot made half of Pujols's mostly successful baserunning decisions--Pujols is up 20 runs as a baserunner in his career, according to UBR--the heat coming off the gamethreads would begin to warp your monitor in the eighth inning. If Skip Schumaker swung at some of the pitches Pujols has swiped at, even Tony La Russa would put him out on the curb. If Mark Hamilton watched his home runs like Pujols always has Ricky Horton would quit the broadcast in disgust.

In truth Pujols just knows he's Albert Pujols, whose instincts are right more than wrong and whose talent allows him to make up for some of those wrong, cheating first steps in any direction. But when I watch him I get the unrelated feeling that he's aware I'm aware of it, and winking at the crowd when he pretends Jose Oquendo doesn't exist yet again.

Three: He always limps, he never goes down. This is the wrist injury, I guess, writ small: Pujols is always limping down the line, holding his leg in a place I didn't even know could ache, when he singles, but he's never affected by the injuries when it comes time to stay in the game, or charge down the line to win it.

Like yesterday's presser, it seems plotted to achieve maximum angst and minimum pain--some invincible stars, your Bill Goldbergs, just squash the opposition, but Pujols is Hulk Hogan; there's always the part of the match where, his arms twisted out of shape, his knees on the mat, he has to Hulk up before eventually becoming the unstoppable Pujols he plays in the offseason and after games.

Coming back from a wrist injury ahead of time could be Machining up, or he could be making a dangerous mistake. I'm hopeful it's the first one because that's just what Albert Pujols does, in my mind's eye. I'll always see him doing implausible, worrying things, and executing them over the top of my first objections.

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