PITTSBURGH — The joke within the Cardinals’ dugout for the past few months as Albert Pujols stood on base after another RBI or circled them after another home run was waiting for a baseball to be rolled jollily to the dugout for authentication.
“You just stand on the dugout and wait for them to ask for the ball,” pitcher Jordan Montgomery said a few weeks ago. “And then ask who he just beat.”
With one swing, that answer was many and mighty Monday night.
Tied Hank Aaron.
And Bryan Reynolds even scored a cameo.
In the sixth inning of a scoreless game, Pujols drove a line drive into the seats beyond left field for his 703rd career home run and a 2-0 lead for the Cardinals. Those two RBIs vaulted him ahead of Ruth and into second place all-time with 2,216 RBIs, behind only Aaron’s 2,297. The home run was Pujols’ 370th on the road in his career, and that tied Aaron for the second-most to Bonds in Major League Baseball history. On the same swing in the city Bonds once called home, Pujols launched over him with his 263rd go-ahead home run.
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That is the most in the majors since 1961.
A ballgame that the Cardinals used to keep two starting pitchers, Jose Quintana and Miles Mikolas, trucking toward their postseason assignments this weekend turned into a test of the bullpen late. Giovanny Gallegos, ink on his two-year contract extension still drying, got them out of trouble in the eighth inning only to plunge them into worse in the ninth. A bases-loaded walk gifted ONeil Cruz on four pitches escorted the Pirates to a literal walk-off 3-2 victory. But with the Pirates playing to avoid a 100th loss and the Cardinals playing because the schedule says to, the evening bent like so many recent ones — inevitably to the will of Pujols and his swings into history.
The Pirates’ picturesque ballpark, along the banks of the Allegheny River, opened in April 2001, seven days after Pujols made his major-league debut, and no visitor has had more fun testing the durability of those seats in left field than by pinballing baseballs into sometimes empty ones. The home run Monday night was his 35th at PNC Park in his 101st game there. That gave him more than any active player on the Pirates' roster, besting center fielder Reynolds.
As the Cardinals near the end of the regular season, Pujols has homered in three of his last four games. He’s putting the finishing touches on one of the greatest careers ever and the closing argument on something settled long ago — that he’s the best right-handed hitter in several generations. All that’s left is for him to get his own adjective.
This kick to the finish could be the definition. Including his homer Monday, nine of his past 12 home runs have either tied a game or given the Cardinals the lead. His 18 home runs since the All-Star break are the most in the National League, and they are more than any player on the Reds’ current roster has had this season. Forget history, at a time when the Cardinals have experienced sag elsewhere in the lineup, Pujols is their present.
Bucs stay at 99
Ke’Bryan Hayes sparked the Pirates in the ninth with a walk and then stole second base. Turns out he was going to be ushered there anyway. Gallegos walked three batters to load the bases and leave a mess for lefty JoJo Romero to negotiate. He entered with no outs, the winning run at third base, and zero margin for error. The Pirates had 99 ways to avoid a 100th loss.
A walk was one.
Romero walked Cruz on four pitches to push home the winning run. When the fourth pitch of his plate appearance did not find the strike zone, Cruz paused at home plate, delaying the Bucs’ rush to celebrate the win.
Quintana, Mikolas split game
The Cardinals approached both pitchers, Quintana and Mikolas, and when neither expressed a preference, pitching coach Mike Maddux chose who started Monday.
They were each going to get about three innings, and they each remain available and on turn to start Game 1 of the wild-card series this weekend, if so selected.
Quintana, the Cardinals’ most consistent starter over the past month, pitched three scoreless innings and allowed two baserunners. He pitched around a leadoff single and was rarely bothered by the Bucs in his tuneup for the postseason. The lefty walked the leadoff hitter for his third and final inning and got a quick double play to cruise to nine outs from 10 batters. It took him 38 pitches to do so, and his next outing could be Friday against an opponent yet to be determined.
That opponent will help make the Cardinals’ decision, though Mikolas and Quintana are lined up for games 1 and 2 of the best-of-three series.
In his final appearance of the regular season, All-Star Mikolas surpassed 200 innings — a personal goal he had and the subject of an ongoing duel between he and veteran right-hander Adam Wainwright. Mikolas will at least have brief bragging rights on the golf course during their next round. The right-hander allowed one run on three hits. He challenged the Pirates with 28 strikes in his 38 pitches. The goal for each pitcher was around 45 pitches, manager Oliver Marmol said, but three innings would also do.
The Cardinals led by Pujols’ home run in the sixth when Reynolds doubled off Mikolas to score Jason Delay and cut that lead in half, 2-1.
Matz, Pallante get their late tests
Like the innings of a spring training game, these last few of the regular season are not without importance. There is still some jockeying and auditioning for postseason roles. The Cardinals have starter Steven Matz, back from a knee injury, set to be their late-game lefty, and they would prefer to use him in games when they need a lefty to hold a lead or perhaps go several innings with a tie to keep from loosening.
Matz retired all three batters he faced Monday for a scoreless seventh inning. He struck out one — left-handed batter Cruz — and got a groundout from a switch-hitter.
Rookie Andre Pallante offers a counterintuitive option to join Matz as part of the answer for left-handed batters in the coming series. A right-hander, Pallante has reverse splits and the movement on his fastball confounds lefties to a .240 average and .314 slugging percentage with 22 strikeouts in 175 at-bats. Pallante drew the eighth inning and did not get six pitches into it before losing the Cardinals’ one-run lead.
Left-handed batter Jack Suwinski lifted a curveball over the right field wall to knot the game 2-2. Suwinski’s 19th homer of the season erased the lead provided by Pujols’ 24th home run of the season. That’s the most home runs he’s hit in a single season since 2016.
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