Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Pujols the Great

I wasn't at Minute Maid Park tonight, but even through the television the sense of anticipation was palpable. As soon as Eckstein scrapped out that base hit, my first thought was "Pujols is in the hole." My second thought was "HAHAHAHA!" And then my third thought was "This could be something very special". Austin got home from rehearsal right after Edmonds worked his walk. "Good," I said. "You're just in time."

"Don't swing at the slider," I thought. By this point I was rooting for the Cardinals because, well, I hate the Astros, and also because I wanted this LCS to last longer since the ALCS was so abbreviated. Pujols swung at the first-pitch slider, and looked bad. Almost the same pitch he struck out on against Pettitte earlier in the game. "Now he'll get the high heat," I thought. Pujols is too good of a hitter to throw him the same pitch twice in a row, right?

Lidge didn't throw the high heat. Like Frankie Rodriguez had done in the other series, Lidge became overly enamored with his slider. It's easy to be tempted when you possess such an astounding breaking ball. Located correctly, they are unhittable. Thing is, breaking balls are fickle. No matter how many times you snap a slider, your next one could roll off your hand the wrong way or the wrist might not snap at the exact right moment, and you're left with beachball. Lidge didn't throw the heat, and Pujols did what all monstrous hitters are supposed to do with hanging sliders--terminate them with extreme prejudice.

What a majestic home run. The cozy dimensions of Minute Maid's left field made it seem a lot longer than it really was...not that 412 feet is anything to sneeze it. It wasn't the distance so much as the grand arc it traced. The impact of truly special home runs can be felt before they even reach the apex. In this apartment, the impact was manifested by three guys reduced to screaming and jumping up and down in amazement and admiration, even though none of us have a true rooting interest in the series.

Even in the midst of the screaming, I thought about how much the tide turned in the series. There is no way to overstate the devestation the Astros must be feeling right now. One strike away against David Eckstein! Now they find themselves in the same situation as last year, travelling to Busch with a 3-2 advantage. I'd argue they're in even worse shape now, because at this point last year, they'd grabbed the momentum thanks to a Jeff Kent walk-off. What will they do now, after having suffered such a wrenching loss?

Perhaps "they" should be reduced to "he." What will Roy Oswalt do? He alone has the power to erase the impact of the homer and to silence what will surely be bedlam at Busch Stadium. Perhaps Phil Garner will be able to inject some life into the clubhouse, but I have a feeling that the Astros will go as Oswalt goes. He needs to make a statement early in the game on Wednesday, say, by striking out Pujols in the first inning. What will Garner do with Lidge, whose psyche must be shattered? Do you go to him in Game 6, showing confidence in him, or do you pull an Ozzie and try to wring 9 innings out of Oswalt? It's certainly not out of Oswalt's reach. He threw 243 innings this season and completed 4 games. Seeing how Houston will handle this situation makes Game 6 all the more compelling.

Finally, some more words about Albert Pujols, not that any of them will suffice. The statistics all show that he has a good chance of going down as the greatest hitter in the history of the game, a blend of average and power that only Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, and Musial can match. His gaudy offensive numbers have masked his development as an all-around ballplayer as well. He now plays with Gold Glove quality at first, and was 16 for 18 in stolen base attempts this season. But Game 5 showed why they put all that emphasis on his bat. Even after having been dormant the entire game, even while facing the hardest-throwing closer in the game, even knowing that failure would mean elimination, his bat delivered. No matter what may happen the rest of this postseason, or even for the rest of his career, Pujols will be defined by this blast.

Unless, of course, he does it again.

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