The scarce crowd stood for the man they came to see Tuesday, the 41-year-old future first-ballot Hall of Famer who last starred here a decade ago before leaving them behind, miffed and wounded, for California.
St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina stepped in front of home plate to give the fans at Busch Stadium time to show their love to Albert Pujols. They showered the first baseman with a 35-second standing ovation. Pujols doffed his batting helmet to the crowd and tapped Molina’s shin guard with his bat. The close friends and former teammates, foes for four days this week, shared a half hug.
Then Pujols provided a familiar sight: a line drive over the left-field wall, in front of Big Mac Land, for the game’s first run in a 7-2 win for the Dodgers. It was Pujols’ 679th career home run — his 207th in St. Louis, 113th at Busch Stadium’s latest iteration and 12th as a Dodger.
“I love these fans, they love me,” said Pujols, who finished one for four. “There’s a lot of great history here, so it’s always a special moment any time that I step in this stadium.”
The 386-foot blast off left-hander J.A. Happ sparked the Dodgers’ best offensive showing in three weeks en route to their second straight win over a Cardinals club gasping for air in the National League wild-card race.
“Storybook,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s one of those things that you hope could happen, but the likelihood is very improbable.”
The Dodgers (88-51) stayed within one game of the first-place San Francisco Giants, also winners Tuesday, in the NL West. The Cardinals drooped to four games outside the NL’s second wild-card spot.
The Dodgers’ seven runs were their most since Aug. 18. Their 11 hits were their most since Aug.15. On the mound, they used nine relievers in a bullpen game, holding the Cardinals (69-68) to two runs and eight hits while walking two.
Justin Turner belted his 22nd and 23rd home runs of the season, his first homers since Aug. 15. Will Smith hit his 23rd in the sixth inning to go with three infield singles for his second career four-hit game. Steven Souza Jr., who was called up before the game, hit an RBI double in the fourth inning before Cody Bellinger contributed with an RBI groundout. It was Bellinger’s first RBI since Aug. 26.
Souza was added to the roster to effectively replace the injured AJ Pollock, who suffered a hamstring strain Saturday, because Bellinger’s struggles have become so detrimental.
Souza started in right field Tuesday to give Mookie Betts a break, but he is expected to mostly start in left field against left-handed starting pitchers. His presence as a right-handed hitter allows the Dodgers to move Chris Taylor to center field and bench Bellinger against left-handers. Bellinger is batting .115 in 88 plate appearances against left-handers this season.
Pujols, on the other hand, was signed by the Dodgers in May to start against left-handers and got the start Tuesday for that reason.
“No. 1, having him in the lineup gives us a great chance to win a ballgame,” Roberts said before the game. “No. 2, it’s great for the game. I know Albert has really been looking forward to coming back here. He’s revered here, and rightfully so.”
The Cardinals expected a huge crowd and charged atmosphere for one of Pujols’ two scheduled starts in the four-game series. But Busch Stadium wasn’t even half full at first pitch. The atmosphere was underwhelming. The ballpark filled in some more over the next few innings and the Cardinals announced an attendance of 34,500, but that number seemed exaggerated.
The scene failed to match the electricity waiting for Pujols when he first visited as an opponent with the Angels in 2019. That weekend, Pujols received resounding standing ovations from sellout crowds before every at-bat. He homered in the second of the three games.
Pujols started all three games that weekend. Tuesday was a rare start for him as a Dodger. He doesn’t play every day for the first time in his career, which was at a crossroads in May before the Dodgers picked him up to help withstand a storm of injuries.
Nearly five months later, Pujols, weeks shy of his first postseason appearance in seven years, is reinvigorated as he surpasses expectations, still slugging away deep into his 21st major league season.
On Tuesday, batting third, he turned on an 89-mph sinker the way he turned around so many pitches in his 11 seasons as a Cardinal. The fans stood and applauded again while Pujols trotted around the bases, never happier to see an opponent take a lead because he will always be one of theirs.
“That was pretty surreal,” Turner said, “for him to come back, get the ovation and give the people what they wanted.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.