Albert Pujols hit his first major league home run on April 6, 2001. Since then, he has homered off 449 different pitchers in the regular season, in 40 different parks, with 12 walk-off home runs along the way. His return to St. Louis has turned into an unexpected magical ride these past few weeks — he’s hitting .405 with 10 home runs since July 6 — and now he’s just seven home runs away from joining Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth with 700 in his career.
Pujols says he’s not counting, instead simply saying, “I’m the grandpa in the clubhouse. I’m having a great time.”
He may not be counting, but we are. His chase for 700 is one of the more exciting things to watch these final weeks of the season. But it’s not the only one. Here are some of the top storylines to pay attention to as we head toward October.
1. Pujols going for 700 home runs
I did not foresee Pujols’ return to the St. Louis Cardinals turning into one of the feel-good stories of the season, let alone project him to having a legitimate shot at reaching 700 home runs with 40 games remaining. No, when the Cardinals reunited with Pujols, I had visions of Ken Griffey Jr.’s final season in Seattle in 2010, when Griffey played 33 games, didn’t hit a home run and quietly walked away at the end of May.
For much of the season, it looked like the Cardinals might have to eventually face a decision on whether to cut bait with the future Hall of Famer. After going 0-for-2 on July 4, Pujols’ average was down to .189 and he had hit .154 over his previous 65 at-bats. Then, at age 42, Pujols somehow suddenly turned the clock back to 2001. He had three hits against the Phillies on July 10 while filling in for Paul Goldschmidt at first base, including a home run and a single in the eighth that led to the winning run in a 4-3 victory. Two days later, he homered in a 7-6 victory over the Dodgers. He had three hits, including a home run, in Toronto on July 27. In Colorado on Aug. 10, he went 4-for-5 with a home run. His average was up to .244.
Then came one of the most remarkable weeks of Pujols’ career. In five games from Aug. 14 through Aug. 20, he went 9-for-16 with five home runs and 11 RBIs:
Aug. 14: Two home runs against the Brewers, including a three-run shot in the eighth to turn a 3-2 lead into a 6-2 advantage.
“To see him do these incredible things and you hear the crowd react, he’s just giving the people what they want,” Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas said after that game. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
“He looks the same as when he left to me,” Adam Wainwright, the winning pitcher in that game, said. “This is what he’s supposed to look like, here, this stadium, doing these things.”
Aug. 20: Pujols went 4-for-4 with two home runs against the Diamondbacks, the 46th four-hit game of his career and his first 4-for-4 game since 2016. He became the oldest player with a four-hit, two-homer game and it was his 64th multihomer game (not including his three-homer game in the World Series) as he passed Stan Musial into second place on the all-time list for total bases.
Pujols’ at-bats have become must-watch events and not just for Cardinals fans. After years of floundering with the Angels — he had a below-average OPS his final five seasons there — he’s figured out a way to go out in style. He homered again on Monday — No. 693, in a 1-0 victory over the Cubs, the Cardinals’ eighth in a row. He’s three away from tying Alex Rodriguez for fourth on the all-time list and seven from that big, round 700. He’s hitting .277/.351/.530 — his highest OPS since 2011. It’s amazing stuff.
Can he get to 700? The biggest issue is that he’s not a regular starter — and shouldn’t be. He’s hitting .398/.436/.807 against lefties, but just .184/.285/.316 against right-handers. The Cardinals have primarily used him as the platoon DH against left-handed starters and that’s the correct role; rookies Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan are both better options against right-handers. So that means Pujols may only get another 15 starts or so the rest of the season, depending on how often manager Oliver Marmol spots him against righties.
There will be some pinch-hitting opportunities in there, and if the Cardinals continue to pull away from the Brewers, maybe a few more starts down the stretch if he’s getting close. He’s going to have to stay hot and even then it will probably go down to the wire.
2. Aaron Judge going for 62 home runs
Judge snapped a nine-game homerless streak, his longest of the season, with a home run off Max Scherzer on Monday, his 47th, then crushed No. 48 on Tuesday. Despite the recent drought, that still leaves Judge on pace for 63, which would break Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 — and, for many, make Judge the “clean” record holder. Let the arguments commence.
3. Paul Goldschmidt going for the Triple Crown
Are you getting the idea that it’s going to be a fun September — and perhaps October — in St. Louis? Goldschmidt’s rankings heading into Wednesday’s action:
Batting average: .335 (first, 12 points ahead of Freddie Freeman)
Home runs: 31 (tied for second, three behind Kyle Schwarber)
RBIs: 100 (second, two behind Pete Alonso)
It’s definitely in play. Catching Schwarber from behind won’t be easy, especially since Goldschmidt’s career high in home runs is 36, but he’s also been crushing it in the second half (.350/.428/.728, 11 home runs in 27 games). It’s worth noting that Miguel Cabrera, the last Triple Crown winner in 2012, came from behind in two categories. With about 40 games remaining, he trailed Mike Trout in batting average (.344 to .328) and was five home runs behind Adam Dunn (36 to 31, with three others in between). Trout dropped down to .326 as Cabrera finished at .330. Cabrera finished with 44 home runs, one more than Josh Hamilton and Curtis Granderson.
To Goldschmidt’s advantage, the Cardinals also play in the soft NL Central, where it’s fair to say three of the teams in the division aren’t exactly running out Cy Young contenders. The Reds, Cubs and Brewers are actually 2-3-4 in the NL in most home runs allowed. And the Cardinals finish the season with six games against the Pirates, a team that Goldschmidt has hit .529 with four home runs against in nine games.
4. The NL East race between the Mets and Braves
This gets my vote as the best division race to watch. Yes, both the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves will make the playoffs, but that second seed (behind the Dodgers) is worth fighting for — and perhaps even more important for the Mets.
First off, you want to avoid a best-of-three series if possible, where anything can happen. Then keep in mind that the top wild card (likely the NL East runner-up) gets the fourth seed, which would mean a matchup against the Dodgers in the division series. And, finally, if you do have to play in the first round, that means your rotation may not be aligned exactly the way you want for the second round. For the Mets, that would mean their No. 4 starter, and not Scherzer or Jacob deGrom, going in for the first game of the second-round series.
Anyway, one big key for each team down the stretch:
Mets: How often will deGrom start? He’s made four starts since his return with two coming on four days rest and one on five. He was originally scheduled to start Tuesday against the Yankees, but was pushed back. It makes sense to play it safe, but getting one extra start out of deGrom could be the difference in the division race.
Braves: How will the rookies fare? The Braves are 55-23 since Michael Harris II was called up on May 28, and Spencer Strider has been a force in the rotation. Strider just hit 100 innings, more than he threw all last season in the minors. Then there’s recent call-up Vaughn Grissom, who looks like a third future star, hitting .420 with 14 runs in his first 14 games. He’s been playing second base with Ozzie Albies still injured, so he won’t have a spot when Albies returns. Would the Braves try him in left field? Grissom is certainly athletic enough, but he never played a game in the outfield in the minors.
The two clubs have one series left against each other — three games in Atlanta from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, the next-to-last series of the season.
5. Can the Guardians hold off Twins and White Sox in NL Central?
It feels like everyone is waiting for the Cleveland Guardians to collapse, especially after they didn’t do anything at the trade deadline, or at least for the Minnesota Twins or Chicago White Sox to finally surge ahead. That not only hasn’t happened, but the Guardians have gone 12-6 since the deadline to move from second place into first. A key reason is the bullpen. With Trevor Stephan and Emmanuel Clase leading the way, they don’t blow leads in the late innings and they’re 9-2 in extra-inning games.
But another big reason is Andres Gimenez, who is quietly having one of the best seasons ever for a young second baseman — yes, emphasis on ever. Here are the highest WAR totals for a second baseman, 23 or younger, since 1947:
1. Carlos Baerga, 1992 Indians: 6.3
2. Willie Randolph, 1978 Yankees: 5.8
3. Joe Morgan, 1965 Astros: 5.7
4. Paul Molitor, 1979 Brewers: 5.6
5. Rod Carew, 1969 Twins: 5.5
6. Chuck Knoblauch, 1992 Twins: 5.3
6. Andres Gimenez, 2022 Guardians: 5.3
He’s second among AL position players in Baseball-Reference WAR and fourth in FanGraphs WAR, hitting over .300, along with power, speed and excellent defense. He doesn’t walk much, but he’s been hit by 16 pitches to help boost that on-base percentage. That Francisco Lindor trade looks like a win for Cleveland and that’s without even factoring in Amed Rosario, who is having a solid season as well.
6. The American League wild-card race
OK, I understand and even sympathize if the wild card isn’t your thing. You’re a little old school, maybe even call yourself a traditionalist, you want 162 games to matter more than it does when six out of 15 teams in each league make the playoffs. But at least this year’s AL wild-card race is interesting and just a slog of .500 teams duking it out. Each team has something on the line:
Tampa Bay Rays: Many teams can complain and whine about injuries, but they all need to back off the excuses after comparing themselves to the Rays. Even now, the Rays still have 13 players on the injured list and several projected regulars have missed large chunks of the season — Brandon Lowe, Wander Franco, Shane Baz, Luis Patino, Mike Zunino, Kevin Kiermaier, Andrew Kittredge, J.P. Feyereisen and others. Tyler Glasnow has missed the entire season. Yet here they are. Shane McClanahan has been an ace, and guys like Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs have excelled in the rotation while Jason Adam has been one of the best relievers in the game. That elusive first World Series title remains in play.
Toronto Blue Jays: Other than the COVID-19 season, the Jays haven’t made the playoffs since 2016. Everyone keeps saying the Blue Jays offense hasn’t been as explosive as 2021, but you have to adjust that for context. The AL averaged 4.60 runs per game in 2021; it’s averaging just 4.19 in 2022. The Jays were third in runs in 2021; they’re second in runs in 2022. Their key may not so much be the offense (although it would help if Bo Bichette got hot), but what they get from starters Jose Berrios (5.39) and Mitch White (3.38 ERA in three short starts since coming over from the Dodgers).
Seattle Mariners: The rotation is solid and the bullpen has been terrific, but they’re still struggling to score runs as they try to end a playoff drought that goes back to 2001. As was pointed out across the sports landscape, Sue Bird played her entire 20-year career with the Seattle Storm between Mariners playoff appearances. They have the easiest remaining schedule with their final 20 games against the Angels, A’s, Royals, Rangers and Tigers, but they also lost two of their past three series to the Rangers and A’s.
Baltimore Orioles: Can the miracle team of 2022 make a late run? The schedule is difficult, with 10 games against the Blue Jays, seven against the Astros and Red Sox and three against the Yankees, but the Orioles are 29-14 since early July. It will be interesting to see if they got September reinforcements in the shape of top prospects Gunnar Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall.
Twins and White Sox: They’re in both the AL Central and wild-card races, so including the Guardians, we’re looking at seven teams for four spots. And remember: No tiebreaker games anymore, so all ties will be determined by on-field results (head-to-head, then intra division record, inter division record, the last half of intra league games).
I know, I know: The cool kids don’t care about pitcher wins. Well, they’re missing out. Gonsolin is having one of the great win-loss seasons of all time at 16-1. A couple marks to remember:
Roy Face has the most wins in a season with just one loss, going 18-1 for the 1959 Pirates — with all his decisions coming in relief. Three of those wins came in games he gave up the lead, only to have the Pirates come back and win. Ten of his wins came in extra-inning games.
Greg Maddux has the most wins in a season with two losses, going 19-2 for the 1995 Braves. He allowed no runs or one run in 18 of his 28 starts that season, on his way to a 1.63 ERA.
Gonsolin has certainly benefited from strong run support and he hasn’t pitched as deep into games as Maddux, but he has 14 outings of one run or no runs. His one loss? To the MLB-worst Nationals, of all teams.
At age 39, Verlander wouldn’t be the oldest pitcher to win a Cy Young Award — Gaylord Perry turned 40 late in the 1978 season and Roger Clemens turned 42 during the 2004 season — but he would be the oldest to win after missing two seasons with Tommy John surgery. Verlander is now 16-3 with a 1.87 ERA after tossing six no-hit innings on Tuesday, and leads the AL in wins and ERA. The Astros star is not a lock to win his third Cy Young, however, with Dylan Cease and Shane McClanahan close behind.
The Dodgers are 85-37, on pace for 113 wins. The only teams with more wins in the 162-game era are the 2001 Mariners (116) and 1998 Yankees (114). What’s interesting, however, is the Dodgers still have several playoff-related questions to answer down the stretch:
1. Will Dustin May pitch his way into the October rotation? He looked great in his first start back from Tommy John surgery, allowing one hit with nine strikeouts over five scoreless innings.
2. Will Craig Kimbrel keep his manager’s trust? The closer has a 4.36 ERA and it’s fair to suggest that Dave Roberts’ lack of faith in Kenley Jansen a year ago cost the Dodgers in the NLCS, since he used Scherzer to close out Game 5 against the Giants. It looks like the Dodgers will once again enter the postseason with concerns about the ninth inning.
3. What will Cody Bellinger‘s ultimate October role look like if he continues to scuffle at the plate?
4. Will Joey Gallo, who has hit well in his first three weeks with the team, earn regular playing time?
5. When will Clayton Kershaw return and how will he look?
The Dodgers are baseball’s best team, and while catching the ’01 Mariners will be almost impossible (they have to go 32-9 to tie), the above questions make them an intriguing watch.
OK, calm down, Yankees fans. It feels like the Yankees have scored about a dozen runs all month … and yet they’ve still scored 48 more runs than any other AL team. This offense can’t remain this stagnant the rest of the season … right? Maybe the two-game sweep of the Mets will get them going again.
Just to make Yankees fans a little nervous, let’s point out that three teams in the division era (since 1969) have blown an eight-game lead over the final 40 games:
The 1969 Cubs were up eight with 40 left, but went 15-25 while the Mets went 24-8 in September and ended up winning the division by eight games.
The 1978 Red Sox were up 8.5 games on the Yankees with 39 remaining, but finished 21-19 — including a loss to the Yankees in the tiebreaker game.
The 1995 Angels had an eight-game lead with 28 left, but went 11-18 while Seattle rallied and beat the Angels in the tiebreaker game.
There have been other infamous division collapses that don’t quite fit the above parameters. The 2007 Mets were up seven with 17 to play, but finished 6-12 as the Phillies caught them. The 2009 Tigers were up seven games with 26 to go, but would lose to the Twins in a tiebreaker game. And the 2011 Red Sox would blow a nine-game lead in the wild-card race by going 7-20 in September.
So, yes, it’s possible. It’s baseball. Strange things can happen.