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Revitalized with Dodgers, Albert Pujols faces his beloved Cardinals in do-or-die NL wild card game


LOS ANGELES — They will be celebrating Albert Pujols one day alongside Musial and Gibson and Brock and all of the St. Louis Cardinals’ greats one day.

They will be retiring his uniform No. 5, which hasn’t been worn since he last played for them 10 years ago.

The Cardinals fansbase will be in Cooperstown when he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, proudly wearing that Cardinals’ cap.

But for one night, and one night only, Pujols is the enemy in St. Louis.

Pujols is representing the Los Angeles Dodgers these days, a team that would love to ruin the Cardinals’ miracle comeback by extinguishing them in Wednesday’s wild-card game (8:08 p.m., ET, TBS) at Dodger Stadium.

The loser goes home for the winter.

The winner earns a berth against the San Francisco Giants in the NL Division Series.

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When he was abruptly released in May by the Los Angeles Angels, who would ever have imagined Pujols would suddenly emerge as a potential factor in this do-or-die game?

Then again, who could have envisioned that the Cardinals would be in this wild-card game three weeks ago? They went on a franchise-record 17-game winning streak to rescue their season, which started right after a series against the Dodgers in St. Louis featuring a pep talk by Pujols.

“It’s funny, I talked to [manager] Mike Shildt when we were there,’’ Pujols told USA TODAY Sports, “and I told him, ‘Hey man, you need to motivate these guys. I think there’s a chance for them to grab a playoff spot.’

“I never thought they were done just because their organization, and the way they prepare, reminds me of this organization. The way they go about it. To see Adam [Wainwright] pitching the way he is, and Yadi [Molina] doing his thing, it’s great to see what they’ve done. It’s fun to see October baseball in St. Louis.’’

Pujols waves to fans during a September game at Busch Stadium..

Pujols waves to fans during a September game at Busch Stadium..

If this were a movie script, of course Pujols would have been playing for the Cardinals, not against them, returning home where he was one of the greatest players who donned a Cardinals’ uniform in the first 11 seasons of his career.

He badly wanted to go back to St. Louis, and was more than willing to be a pinch-hitter and part-time player, just as he is with the Dodgers.

But the Cardinals never called.

Simply, they didn’t see a fit.

The Dodgers, on the other hand, believed he was perfect.

“When Albert left Anaheim,’’ said David Freese, Pujols’ teammate on the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series championship team, “my initial thought was that this guy could end up a Dodgers. I knew LA’s roster, I knew their interest in me as a right-handed hitter, I thought this guy could up a Dodger.’’

Two other teams expressed interest, Pujols said, but he chose the Dodgers, knowing he could still stay home, with the opportunity to win another World Series ring.

“For me at that time, after talking to my kids and my wife,’’ Pujols says, “we all agreed it was the right decision. It was a no-brainer. There were other teams, but this is the one that fit best for me.

“I wanted a chance to win another championship.’’

Pujols, 41, understood the Cardinals’ reasoning for not bringing him back. They have an All-Star first baseman in Paul Goldschmidt. They didn’t see a way to squeeze playing time for him. They believed it would have been a distraction, with daily questions asking whether Pujols would be in the lineup, and the fans clamoring for him, choosing to remember those glorious days.

Still, Pujols isn’t going to lie. He was hurt. He felt he deserved at least a phone call for an explanation. Why couldn’t he relive that magic in St. Louis, just as he’s doing these days with the Dodgers?

“I have that chip on my shoulder right now, always,’’ Pujols said. “I didn’t have my best years over there with the Angels. Those things happen. I didn’t take anything for granted. I knew I wasn’t done.

“Just like now, I wear this uniform with pride and honor. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to wear it. And as long as I’m wearing it, I’m going to have fun.’’

Pujols has been key for the Dodgers , hitting 12 homers with 38 RBI as a part-time player, including a .303 batting average, .606 slugging percentage and .953 OPS against left-handed pitching. He’s even more important for the Dodgers now with All-Star first baseman Max Muncy sidelined with an elbow injury.

Pujols’ greatest influence, his teammates will tell you, has been in the clubhouse. All-Star outfielder Mookie Betts says that Pujols reminded him to have fun again. Justin Turner picks his brain daily about hitting, life and the game of baseball. The young players gather around him soaking up his knowledge and dreaming one day they could have even half of his career.

“I had high expectations for what he’s done and the person he is,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says, “but I didn’t know how much he would be able to impact the culture here. I expected a productive bench player, but I didn’t see it to this extent.

“I’m telling you, the conversations that he’s had, the way he goes about his day, is going to impact these players, young and old, for the rest of their careers.

“That is something I’ll be forever grateful. I’m just so glad I’m able to have him on my team.’’

You know the man is revered when Dodgers Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer, a St. Louis native, grabs Pujols for a picture at Busch Stadium – making sure the Arch was the background.

“I’m going to get that picture signed, that’s all I want signed from him,’’ said Scherzer, who joined the Dodgers at the July 30 trade deadline. “I pinch myself every day playing with Albert. It’s crazy, because I was a huge fan of his when he first broke into the big leagues.

“I was still in high school when that happened. So, all of these years later to somehow be on his team is nuts. It’s even more fun now because now I get to talk baseball with him and understand what makes him great.’’

And, it’s only fitting, that at the tail end of Pujols’ career, he is back in the postseason for the first time since 2014.

“This is where he belongs,’’ says Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa, “playing October baseball. Really, it’s perfect. He has never really changed from the first day to the last. It’s never been about chasing dollars or fame. It’s always been about, “What can I do to win.’’’

Says Freese: “Albert Pujols is the type of person that belongs in October. He belongs in the playoffs. It will always be part of his legacy.’’

Pujols on the bench during a September game in St. Louis.

Pujols on the bench during a September game in St. Louis.

Pujols, who’s in the final year of his 10-year, $240 million contract – excluding a 10-year, $10 million personal services contract upon retirement – never won in Anaheim. He never made the All-Star team. The Angels never won a playoff game. His Angels’ postseason career consisted of just three playoff losses.

Now, he finally has one more chance, if not more.

“I’m so excited,’’ Pujols said, “this is what you play for, October baseball. I think every player will tell you that even though the money is great and all of that, at the end of the day, we all want to win a championship.

“And I’m a guy who’s always hungry. I got two World Series, and I want more. Trust me, it’s not like I won two, and I’m ok if we win or lose. I don’t play that game. I play this game to win, and have another ring at the end of the season.

“I’m having so much fun here. It’s such a great group of guys. The preparation, how we talk, the chemistry, is pretty awesome.

“So, whether I’m done at the end of this season or next year, what a way to go out.’’

Pujols was seriously contemplating retirement after this season while with the Angels, but his 4 ½-month stint with the Dodgers has reinvigorated him, and considering his success, why not play one more year?

He has 679 homers, and with the chance to join the prestigious 700-homer club where only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth have gone, it makes no sense to stop.

Pujols doesn’t want to tip his hand, since he doesn’t know how he’ll fare in free agency, but with an expected universal DH in the next collective bargaining agreement, no one expects him to retire just yet.

“I expect him to keep playing,’’ Roberts said. “When you hear Albert say that he’s had more fun than he’s had in years, and you see it in his face, why stop? He’s recharged. He’s having fun. And with the DH in both leagues, he’s got a special opportunity to make history.

“He’s like, ‘I can do this for another year.’ “

Who knows, maybe he’ll be back for one final rodeo where his Hall of Fame career all started.

“We’ll see,’’ Pujols says, “we’ll see. But no matter what happens, St. Louis will be special to me and my family forever. That’ll never change.’’

The only thing that may slightly alter the mutual love affair is whether Pujols breaks the Cardinals’ hearts one more time, this time, on the field.

“I’m sure it’s going to be so weird for that Cardinals’ fanbase,’’ Freese says, “to see him come into the game in the late innings with a lefty on the mound.

“Oh, man, can you imagine?’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dodgers’ Albert Pujols faces his beloved Cardinals in MLB playoffs

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