On Saturday night against the Pirates, he didn't get the opportunity until extra innings, but he made it count with a pinch-hit home run to lead off the 10th inning against Pirates closer Matt Capps to give the Cardinals a 2-1 victory at PNC Park.
With the Cubs winning earlier Saturday in New York, the Cardinals' margin atop the National League Central remained at 11 1/2 games, but the St. Louis victory cut the magic number for clinching the division to 16.
"That's how I made the ballclub in 2001 in Spring Training, Tony [La Russa] used me with a bunch of pinch-hits coming off of the bench," Pujols said. "That got me used to doing it. Obviously, I got a little spoiled because I play every day right now, but in that situation, you try to be in the game and knowing when he can use you."
With La Russa giving a rest to Pujols, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Brendan Ryan and Mark DeRosa (because of a back issue), he had the deepest bench in baseball. The manager called on Pujols as his first weapon in the 10th, and Pujols responded with his second career pinch-hit homer -- his 44th long ball of the season -- on a 1-2 offering from Capps.
"I took BP early today because I knew that he could use me in the game and I wanted to be sure I was ready for it," Pujols said. "I came up [to the clubhouse] in the fifth inning to stretch and hit the ball off the tee a little bit. In the 10th, I was ready to go. My mind was already prepared.
"I've been with Tony for nine years, so I know that he's going to use me somehow during the game if he has the opportunity. I wanted to make sure he didn't catch me by surprise."
It shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that Pujols came through, but is it possible that revenge had something to do with his heroics on this night? The last time Capps faced Pujols, on Aug. 9, the Pirates closer drilled the All-Star in the ribs. La Russa believes that in this kind of situation, a ballplayer's memory is long and vivid.
"It's human nature. He gets hit intentionally and the next time he has the chance, yeah," La Russa said. "I don't know if it gets better than that. I don't care who it is, you remember that."
Pujols, for his part, downplayed that particular dramatic angle, saying, "Not revenge. I was trying to get on base, trying to help my team out to win the game."
"It hit me right in the ribs," he continued. "That thing hurts. I prefer to get it somewhere in the legs than in my upper body, but that was a month ago, I don't even want to talk about this."
If it hadn't been for the Cardinals' pitching and some outstanding defense, Pujols may have never had the chance. Prior to his blast, the makeshift lineup had managed just four hits through the first nine innings as Ross Ohlendorf handcuffed St. Louis all night. Truth be told, the regular lineup might not have fared all that well against the Bucs right-hander on this night. Ohlendorf struck out a career-high 11 while allowing just the one unearned run over eight innings.
Luckily for the Cardinals, Mitchell Boggs was nearly as good. He went seven innings, allowing just one run on five hits. It was his second straight strong start as he tries to hold onto a spot in the rotation with the impending return of Kyle Lohse.
"As far as maintaining it when the other guy is giving us nothing, that was clutch," La Russa said.
"It was big," Boggs said. "If I go out there and don't do my job, we probably lose that game because [Ohlendorf] threw extremely well. The guys behind me played outstanding and Albert came up with the big home run, like he always does, and we were able to eke one out."
Left fielder Rick Ankiel gets a big assist on making the ekeing feasible. After the Pirates had taken a 1-0 lead in the fourth on Lastings Milledge's double, Steve Pearce hit a rocket to left-center that seemed destined for extra bases and a 3-0 Pirates lead, but Ankiel made a terrific running catch and the Cards were able to double off Milledge to end the inning.
"We haven't made a better play in the outfield than that one," La Russa said. "That ball was bulleted. That was a great play. The game is over, we're not going to score that many runs. That was going to be a triple, two runs and who knows."
"[It was] huge. If he doesn't make that play, who knows what happens," an appreciative Boggs said. "For some reason, I had a feeling when it came off the bat and I turned around, I thought he had a legitimate shot at catching it. That was an incredible play and it helped me out a lot."
The Cards scored their one run during regulation with some help from the Pirates. Skip Schumaker led off the sixth with a single and was balked to second. He tagged and went to third on a Colby Rasmus flyout to center and scored when Andy LaRoche couldn't handle Ryan Ludwick's ground ball. That was all the scoring until the game-winner.
Closer Ryan Franklin made things interesting in the bottom of the 10th. Andrew McCutchen walked with one out and stole second. He took third on a Delwyn Young groundout. The Cardinals then decided to intentionally walk Garrett Jones to put runners on the corners, but Franklin froze Milledge with a called strike three to preserve the victory and pick up his 37th save of the season.
"[Jones] right now is getting the ball on the barrel on just about everything we're throwing, and Milledge, it's the best I've seen him," La Russa said. "And you had [Ryan] Doumit on deck. This was really heart-stopping. But you pick your poison, and we figured we had a better chance with Milledge. If he hits the ball in the gap, it would've been a bad decision. If we get him out, it's an OK decision."
It turned out to be a good decision, along with the one to give most of his regular lineup a breather. Even though they were sitting, everyone on the bench knew their skipper could call on them at any point. Sure enough, Holliday and Molina joined Pujols as pinch-hitters in the 10th and Ryan was a defensive replacement in the final inning.
"That's what you want," Pujols said of being on call. "I love to play every day. Obviously, there's going to be some nights, and he told me he was going to try to get me a day off on this road trip. He thought today was a great night for everybody that wasn't playing."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less