Commentary: Dodgers' Albert Pujols excels in shortened, maybe final, playoff start

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Los Angeles, CA - October 11: Los Angeles Dodgers' Albert Pujols follows through on a swing.
The Dodgers' Albert Pujols hits a fifth-inning single during Game 3 of the NLDS against San Francisco on Monday night. He went two for two in the 1-0 loss. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The game had four innings to play, at least. His team had two hits, and he had both of them. This postseason series was tied, and he was coming out of the game.

He was not injured. His team had voluntarily silenced one of the most lethal bats in baseball history.

Twenty years and one day had passed since Albert Pujols hit his first postseason home run, off Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.

The Hall will call for Pujols too, and we will remember his glory days, his three most valuable player awards, how he accepted the “best player in baseball” torch from Barry Bonds and graciously passed it along to Mike Trout.

We will long have forgotten what might be the last image of postseason Pujols: leaving the game for a pinch-runner, with the game very much in doubt. Running for Pujols: Billy McKinney, a journeyman with three career stolen bases.

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape.

That the Dodgers got this far with Pujols is a victory for him, and for them. The Angels never had won a postseason game with him on their roster. In the last year of his decade under contract, the Angels finally had a better, younger first baseman. The Angels did not believe Pujols could be content as less than a full-time player.

When the Angels cut him in May, the Dodgers had an opening for a role player, a platoon and bench bat against left-handed pitching. Pujols got no assurances beyond that from Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, and Dave Roberts, the Dodgers’ manager.

“Whether he is on the playoff roster with us or he doesn’t finish the season with us, there’s a lot of different ways it could have played out,” Roberts said before the Dodgers’ 1-0 loss to the San Francisco Giants in Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Monday night.

Pujols did his job, hitting left-handers. He also emerged as a mentor and nightly hug dispenser.

Frankly, Roberts said, he was surprised the summer of Pujols went so well.

“I am,” Roberts said. “I’m not surprised how the dealings [went] and … him accepting the role, but, man, he’s been so impactful in the clubhouse as far as on the field as well.”

Dodgers' Albert Pujols celebrates with teammates in the dugout.
The Dodgers' Albert Pujols is congratulated in the dugout after being substituted by pinch-runner Billy McKinney during the fifth inning. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

If Max Muncy had not been injured, first base would have been his Monday. If Cody Bellinger had not been one of the least productive hitters in the major leagues this season, first base could have been his.

Instead, there was Pujols, at 41, batting seventh.

In the 77 postseason games he had started before this one, he had batted third or fourth every time.

“This is what you always play for, to have a chance to play deep in October,” Pujols told SportsNet LA before the game. “Having an opportunity again is awesome.”

It could be his last opportunity.

The rest of the Giants’ starting pitchers are right-handed. The Dodgers are one loss from winter. Pujols has not said whether he hopes to play next season, and the list of clubs with a role for a platoon hitter who plays only one position might not be long. Perhaps the NL will help by adopting the designated hitter.

On Monday, Pujols did not wish to look so far ahead.

“I’m blessed to have an opportunity to wear this uniform,” he said. “I’m getting another opportunity to play in the postseason.

“Right now, I’m just going to enjoy this moment tonight and try to help this ballclub win. When it comes to tomorrow, I’ll just try to do the same thing. I don’t like to plan ahead of myself. I don’t like to think ahead. I just like to live day by day.

“It’s a blessing to have an opportunity to play in the big leagues, and in the playoffs. Being one of the eight teams [remaining] in the playoffs, out of 30 ballclubs in the league, it’s pretty awesome. That’s what you play for.”

Pujols collected two hits, both singles, his first multihit postseason game in 10 years, the first multhit game by any player so old since Julio Franco in 2003.

He departed after the second hit, and the move was absolutely correct. The Dodgers trailed by one run, McKinney would have been able to score from first on an extra-base hit, and the Giants were on the verge of removing their left-handed starter.

The scene nonetheless was jarring.

Father Time is undefeated. He has not quite beaten Pujols, but Father Time was in the Dodgers’ dugout in spirit Monday, as Pujols draped his hands over a rail, talking with Julio Urías. It was the fifth inning, and the game was on the line. The game would go on without Pujols.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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