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The Pujols Game

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Remember when Pujols went 5-5 with 3 HRs against the Cubs?

Cardinals v Cubs Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB via Getty Images

We’re getting awfully close to the beginning of the baseball season, and I am very excited. Honestly, the baseball part of my excitement is almost secondary to the fact that I’ll finally have brand new 2020 baseball things to write. But we’re not quite there yet. As exciting as it is for me to talk about exhibition games (it’s not), I’ll instead focus on a game I remember watching live. And the reason I picked this particular game is because it happened on July 20th, 2004.

Ah, the 2004 baseball season. Easily the greatest Cardinals team in my lifetime, even though they don’t have a ring to show for it. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen all in the smack dab middle of their prime, with a late season addition of Larry Walker and Yadier Molina outplaying Mike Matheny at catcher. That’s a lot of should be Hall of Famers on one team! If wrote this last year, there’d be two massive, massive blind spots, but Walker’s case has been remedied at least. It was that and five pitchers who threw 180+ innings, probably the last time we’ll ever see that.

But today’s pitcher did not last that long. Matt Morris had a bit of a rough 2004, and a big reason why was because of starts like the 20th. He had eight starts with 5+ earned runs or more in 2004. And July 20th wasn’t even his worst start of the year, nor his shortest. That start came 11 days later. against the Giants, when he pitched 0.2 IP with 8 ER, which somehow included just one walk. Sometimes Matt was very hittable.

His opponent was Glendon Rusch, who was having one of his best seasons in 2004. He had a very bad 2003 with the Milwaukee Brewers, with a 6.42 ERA, so Rusch did not start the year in the Cubs rotation. By his fourth appearance, injuries had forced him back into the rotation and by July, he was pushed back to the bullpen, though not from poor pitching. Prior to July 20th, he threw 5.1 IP in the bullpen against the Brewers, where he gave up no runs. He walked four and struck out just two, but it was enough to put him back in the rotation in five days.

Things started well. Tony Womack worked a walk, and when I say worked, I mean worked. He was down 1-2 and fouled off three pitches on 3-2 before taking ball four. Pujols doubled him home. Similarly, there was no indication that Matt Morris would have a bad start at first either. He pitched a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts with just 13 pitches. You could probably guess the Cards would win based on the 1st. You’d be right, but not in the way you expected.

Here was the problem: Pujols was just about the only one who could hit Rusch. Which isn’t necessarily a problem in most games. Prime Albert Pujols could win games by himself. But after a 1-2-3 2nd by Rusch, the Cardinals would need help from somebody else - multiple somebodies - when Morris couldn’t get any Cubs bats to miss. It started off with a walk, not a great sign. Then Derrek Lee homered. Aramis Ramirez doubled. Michael Barrett homered.

They did this all on six pitches. Morris threw three balls, three strikes. The three strikes were all murdered. He regained his composure, struck out Alex Gonzalez, and then lost his composure on a Rusch hit. He then walked leadoff batter Todd Walker, who he struck out in the 1st, and got into an 0-2 count on Corey Patterson. Instead of striking out, Patterson doubled. Two more runs in. After another out, Alou served the final blow, driving Patterson in for the 7th run of the inning. Out goes Morris, in comes Cal Eldred.

In the 3rd, Pujols homered off Rusch. Nobody else got on base, so it was 7-2. But then Eldred allowed a homer of his own, this one to Ramirez. I remember Ramirez as a Cardinal killer - he hit .309/.366/.520, which was a 113 tOPS+. (So the answer is yes, he was). But then Eldred got the next three batters out. Reggie Sanders got the first non-Pujols hit of the game, but nobody else in the 4th did. A leadoff double was stranded by Eldred in the bottom of the inning. Another 1-2-3 inning from Rusch in the 5th. Eldred was on his last legs at this point, but ends up hanging on long enough to hand the ball to Steve Kline with two runners on and two outs, who gets a groundout from Rusch.

Pujols luckily led off the 6th and I assure you his dominance of Rusch did not end here. He singled to lead the game off. At this point, Rusch has shown an ability to not get out Pujols, but get everybody else out. Up next were Rolen and Edmonds. Rolen got hit in the 1st inning, struck out in his next plate appearance. Edmonds had two strikeouts. Rusch also it must be pointed out had 98 pitches and was facing freaking Scott Rolen in his prime, previous PAs be damned. But it was an 8-2 lead, so there was literally no conflict about taking him out and there wouldn’t be now I don’t think.

Rolen fell behind 1-2, looked at two balls, and then lined a single that hit Alex Gonzalez’s glove but was hit too hard for him to catch. Prime Pujols of course made it to third base and also faked like he might go home. I cannot accurately describe how fun Pujols was to watch. Most of you know. A few, unfortunately, do not. Edmonds, not wanting to strike out a third time, swung at the first pitch. Got a bit lucky. The ball found a hole, scoring the 3rd run and ending Rusch’s day.

His replacement, Francis Beltran was not very good. It is 8-3 in the 6th inning with the MV3 having already batted, but there’s also nobody out. And Beltran’s big weakness is that he has absolutely no control. He made it work enough sometimes to get hitters to miss, with a 26.5 K% for the Cubs that year - this at a time when that would really stand out. But he also walked 14.5% of batters. The Cardinals weren’t biting. Sanders walked. Mike Matheny walked. He walked Mike Matheny! Look at Matheny’s hitting stats. He walked that guy! And they kept him in for one more batter: So Taguchi!

Taguchi got very lucky. On 0-1, he hit a chopper back to the pitcher. The pitcher didn’t get his full glove on the ball, so the ball went straight up into the air and died a little bit behind the pitcher making everyone safe. Out goes Beltran, in comes Kent Mercker. I’ll always remember Mercker as a Cardinal by the way. Mercker faced Ray Lankford, who hit a sacrifice fly, but Tony Womack struck out and Edgar Renteria flied out, so all things considered good job by Mercker for keeping it to just one run. But it was 8-6 now.

Speaking of Mercker, I will forever remember him as a Cardinal. He had a long career, from 1989-2008, and was only on the Cardinals for 1.5 seasons. But he happened to be on the team for the Nintendo 64 game “Major League Baseball featuring Ken Griffey Jr.” I played it regularly for a few years. I remember trading Jim Edmonds onto the Cards, and I would always do trades to update the current team when I played. By 2001, I’m pretty sure I had gotten a PS2, but that was my baseball game for a good three years.

Kiki Calero replaced Steve Kline in the 6th. I confess that younger me that that the biggest loss of the Mark Mulder trade was Kiki Calero. This was six years before I learned about advanced stats so give me a break. But I did love watching him pitch. He set the Cubs down in order. Kyle Farnsworth was having one of his not very good years, but he looked fine in the 7th... except for giving up a home run to Pujols, now 4-4. Calero got another 1-2-3 inning, this time striking out two batters.

Farnsworth came back out for the 8th and struck out Marlon Anderson. And then allowed a home run to recently double switched in So Taguchi! I swear So Taguchi hit like 4 homers as a Cardinal and all of them were awesome (Game 2 anyone?). Farnsworth got out of the inning thanks to caught stealing from Womack with two outs. Renteria later singled so I guess it was a good gamble. It just didn’t work. Ray King replaced Calero and he got a 1-2-3 inning. Hey the 2004 bullpen was pretty good.

As mentioned, Renteria hit a lead off single against LaTroy Hawkins. Hawkins was 31-years-old and played for another 11 seasons. Then Pujols homered a third time. 5-5 with three homers, a double, five RBIs, four runs scored. Pujols was very close to winning this game by himself in an 11-8 win. Reggie Sanders homered to make it 11-8 and put the final nail in the coffin, although Pujols probably did that himself.

Of course, it was a classic Izzy save. He walked Patterson on four pitches with one out, then allowed a two out single. He walked the bases loaded bringing up Aramis Ramirez. Maybe that third run was important. But alas, Ramirez flied out to end the game. And that’s how I remember a random July game from a 105 win team and honestly not that many other wins that year. But the Pujols game, the 5-5 game, the So Taguchi game, I remember that very well.