ST. LOUIS — When the Los Angeles Dodgers roll into town to face the Cardinals at Busch Stadium this week, it won't just be a matchup of two teams with playoff aspirations. Because when Albert Pujols is on deck for a trip to St. Louis, things are just a little extra special.
"It was special in 2019 when I first went there and it's going to be special when I go there tomorrow for the week," the former Cardinal Pujols said on Sunday. "I think at the end of the day for myself I always try to let those things play out the way they're going to play out. I don't like to bring distraction on myself. I like to prepare myself for the game and things I need to do."
Pujols' first trip back to his old stomping grounds as a member of the Angels in 2019 created some of the most memorable moments of the past few seasons. He got a standing ovation every single time he came to the plate, and even got a curtain call as a visiting player after a home run.
The continued love from St. Louis fans is not lost on the future first ballot Hall of Famer.
"It means a lot. That's where everything started for me. Even though I left there 10 years ago, I have my roots there, my foundation I have... Great people, great fans who became pretty much my family. I have a lot of close friends who I don't call friends. They're like brothers and sisters to me. It's just pretty amazing," Pujols said. "That will show you what kind of fans the St. Louis Cardinals (fans) are. I think I took 13 plate appearances and all 13 plate appearances I had a standing ovation and they were standing until I tipped my cap to them. That was something that was really special to me. I think as ranked out there, if it's not the best moment of my career it's probably up there one or two, including the World Series. That's something that I'll treasure forever."
Pujols the Dodger comes in with a revitalized look. After being dumped by the Angels, Pujols has been a solid contributor for their cross town companions. He's hitting .261 with 11 home runs and an OPS of .782 since putting on the Dodger blue. Pujols has been absolutely deadly against lefties and is used almost exclusively against them for the Dodgers. In 2021, he's hitting .301/.336/.618/.954 with 12 home runs and 33 RBI against left-handers in 123 at-bats this season. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Pujols will start in games against Cardinals lefty starters J.A. Happ and Kwang-Hyun Kim.
And Pujols is focused on helping the Dodgers repeat, and getting himself ring No. 3.
"That's why you play baseball. To win a championship. I think God opened this opportunity for me to come here and play for the Dodgers for the remainder of the season," Pujols said. "I'm really excited. It's an opportunity I never thought I was getting from this organization and when I got the call I was caught by surprise."
The 41-year-old slugger is just 22 home runs away from 700 for his career but has not yet given a timetable on if he plans to keep playing past 2021.
Two of his former teammates with the Cardinals, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, have also continued to perform at advanced ages for the sport. Pujols couldn't be more proud.
"If there's anyone who can do it, it's himself," Pujols said of Molina, who recently signed an extension to play 2022 in St. Louis for his final season. "He really works out, he's probably one of if not the best catcher in the game defensively. You can throw it out there offensively. Yadi's a guy who's got some big hits for that organization and the way he plays his defense I don't see anyone else like that before. I'm really excited for him to go back there and finish his career there with one team. It's really good. I'm sure the city is really excited to have him back there and enjoys the way Yadi plays his game and the way he prepares himself."
"When everybody has kind of written him off he comes back and is having a heck of a year this year," Pujols said of Wainwright, who has been one of the best pitchers in the National League in his age 39-40 season. "I'm so excited for him and pumped up. I just talked to him yesterday. I was like, 'You're lucky I'm not going to face you Wednesday when you throw.' I'm just excited for those guys."
While the Dodgers are fighting for an NL West crown, the Cardinals are fighting just to stay above water in the Wild Card hunt. But Pujols knows the Busch Stadium crowd will be fired up for this four-game series, and not just because of Pujols' return.
"I believe they're the best fans in baseball. They come to the stands fully packed. To see the way they responded, not just when I came back in 2019, but to see how they treat other players when they make history in that stadium... I was part of it when Ken Griffey hit his 500th homer in old Busch Stadium. It was pretty impressive. And they really appreciate good baseball and they're going to have a good feel with two great baseball teams and organizations playing this week. And there might be a little taste of maybe an October playoff against the Cardinals and Dodgers, who knows."