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Albert Pujols couldn’t have asked for a better pitcher to square off against if he wanted to endear himself to the Dodgers faithful right off the bat.
Hitting cleanup in his first day in Dodgers blue and wearing Orel Hershiser's No. 55 (Corey Seager has claim to Pujols's familiar No. 5), the 41-year-old took advantage of the perfect opportunity to start strong as he plays out the twilight of his career on his terms. In a showdown between the oldest active player in the majors and the player who most embodies the sport’s old-school attitude, Pujols got the better of longtime Dodgers nemesis Madison Bumgarner.
Pujols jumped on the first pitch he saw from Bumgarner in the first inning—an 88 mph cutter meant to run in on Pujols’s hands, but was left over the heart of the plate—and just got under it on a harmless fly out hit roughly a mile high into the temperate Los Angeles air. But when the future Hall of Famer strolled up to the plate with men on the corners in the third inning, he did what he’s done more often than every player in MLB history, save for Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth; he drove in a run.
Pujols calmly stroked an 0–2 cutter on the lower outside corner back up the middle for an RBI single, extending his new team’s lead to 2–0. It was his 2,113th career RBI. The knock ended up as the game-winning run in Los Angeles’s 3–1 victory over Arizona.
This is what the Dodgers signed the three-time MVP for; to rake against left-handed pitchers and clear the bases. While Pujols has certainly declined from his heyday and hasn’t registered a successful pinch hit in 12 years, his .857 OPS against lefties this year—which is nearly 200 points better than the Dodgers’ .659 OPS against them (23rd in MLB)—indicates he can help the defending champs. And though Bumgarner may have represented the perfect opponent from a narrative standpoint, he was no easy assignment for Pujols to prove his worth against.
Entering Monday, the 2014 World Series MVP had pitched like the MadBum of old over his previous five starts, including his unofficial no-hitter against the Braves on April 25. Bumgarner had registered a 0.90 ERA in that span, along with the lowest WHIP over a five-game stretch (0.47) by any MLB pitcher since Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander in 1915.
But Pujols helped the Dodgers halt that streak and knock him out after just four laborious innings, and provided a storybook start to part two of his 2021 season.
In a press conference earlier Monday, Pujols said all the right things after the Angels claimed he’d accept only a starting role when they made the startling decision to release him earlier this month. The 10-time All-Star said he was “here to do whatever—pinch hit, first base, whatever they want. I’m just excited to have this opportunity to wear this uniform. I’m glad to be here, [there is] a great group of guys in this clubhouse. They’re already making me feel at home.”
At least for one day, Pujols did his part to make himself welcome in his new digs, too.
• Mike Trout came up lame running out a pop up by Jarred Walsh and was diagnosed with a right calf strain. The Angels can obviously ill afford a long-term absence from Trout, but their other MVP candidate made sure they could withstand his loss for one night. Shohei Ohtani cranked a 94 mph fastball that came in above his letters out of the ballpark for his MLB-leading 13th home run, which helped Los Angeles defeat Cleveland 7–4. It was the highest pitch an Angels hitter had homered on in the pitch tracking era (since 2008), according to MLB.com’s David Adler.
• Mets outfielder Kevin Pillar was hit in the face by a 94-mph heater from Braves reliever Jacob Webb on Monday night. It was a gruesome scene as blood gushed from Pillar's nose. He was taken for a CT scan and said afterward on Twitter than he was "doing fine." The Mets announced Tuesday that Pillar "suffered multiple nasal fractures. He will be meeting with a facial specialist in Atlanta to determine next steps."
• Gerrit Cole ran his record-breaking tally to 61 straight strikeouts without a walk before finally issuing a free pass in the third inning Monday to Joey Gallo, whom he had retired in the first inning to overtake the record set by Corbin Burnes just last week. That was just about the only positive note in what may have been his worst start of not just this season, but also of last one. Cole allowed five earned runs, five extra-base hits and 11 hard-hit balls (defined by Statcast as balls struck with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph), all of which were the most he’d allowed during his Yankees tenure, as the Rangers beat New York 5–2.
• Kyle Schwarber and Jon Lester were warmly welcomed back to Wrigley Field in their first games in Chicago as members of the Nationals. Javier Báez was not as kind, chasing Lester with an opposite-field homer in the sixth inning to leave the lefty with a line of five earned runs in 5 1/3 innings. Kris Bryant, starting in left field for the Cubs, left a Twix bar in the outfield for Schwarber between innings. Schwarber said he ate it before his next time up, when he commemorated his return to the Friendly Confines with a home run to straight away center. The Cubs still came out on top, 7–3.
• White Sox breakout star Yermín Mercedes took lovable utilityman Willians Astudillo deep in the ninth inning of Chicago's 16–4 rout of the Twins. A home run off a position player in the last inning of a blowout is usually unremarkable, but this came in a matchup between two of the more entertaining players in baseball. Plus, it was a 3–0 count and the pitch the Yerminator obliterated was a 47.1-mph floater, prompting tired cries about the unwritten rules and the sanctity of the game. If that wasn't enough, as Sports Illustrated's Dan Gartland points out in Tuesday's Hot Clicks, since 2008 when MLB began tracking pitch velocity, no home-run pitch has registered a velocity slower than the one Mercedes ripped Monday night.
More MLB Coverage:
• Selbe: Pujols Joining Dodgers Is One Last Shot at Proper Exit
• Laws: MLB Must Act Before Beanballs Hurt Players and the Game
• Verducci: What's Behind Baseball's Hit-By-Pitch Epidemic?
• Verducci: Inside the Devastating Gig Economy of Relief Pitching