Albert Pujols

June 4-5, 2011: Albert Pujols hits back-to-back walk-off home runs against the Cubs

Heading into the Cardinals’ three-game, early-June series against the Chicago Cubs, Albert Pujols was experiencing a power outage. By the time the Cardinals left Busch Stadium with three victories – including back-to-back walk-off home runs – he had reminded everyone once again why Tony La Russa considered Pujols to be the greatest player he had ever managed.

With a 33-25 record, the Cardinals entered the June 3-5, 2011, series with a two-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. However, they had won just once in a four-game series against the San Francisco Giants, and while Pujols launched seven homers in April, he had added just two to his season tally since. In May, Pujols hit .288 with a .365 on-base percentage, but his slugging percentage was just .387. During one lengthy stretch, he went 105 at-bats without a homer.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, Pujols’ bat heated up with the turning of the calendar – and the arrival of the Cubs in St. Louis.

The Cardinals opened the series with a 6-1 victory in which Lance Berkman hit a three-run homer off Ryan Dempster and Pujols added a two-run shot that marked his 100th career blast at Busch Stadium.

Jaime Garcia, who had allowed 11 earned runs in 3 1/3 innings during his previous start at Colorado, bounced back with eight innings of one-run ball. The Cardinals southpaw walked one and struck out eight in improving to 6-1 on the season.

“His first five or six innings, it was like, man, he only threw 80 pitches,” shortstop Ryan Theriot said. “Strike one every time, and when they did make contact, it was a ground ball or a pop-up. It was impressive to watch.”[1]

The rest of the series would not be as easy. The second game of the series pitted Kyle Lohse, an 11-year veteran in his fourth season with the Cardinals, against Randy Wells, a right-hander from Belleville, Illinois, who placed sixth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2009 but went just 8-14 in 2010.

Lohse and Wells traded scoreless frames for the first three innings. Theriot walked to lead off the bottom of the fourth before Pujols hammered a 2-1 pitch over the right-field wall to give the Cardinals a 2-0 lead. After the game, he said the home run was the hardest he had hit a ball all season.[2]

The Cubs answered with four runs in the top of the sixth. Starlin Castro led off with a single to left and Carlos Pena hit the first pitch he saw over the right-field wall to tie the game. After Geovany Soto doubled to left, Tony Campana brought him home with a two-out single into center.

Wells followed with a single, placing runners on first and third for Cubs leadoff hitter Kosuke Fukudome. The right fielder from So-gun, Japan, hit a ground-rule double to score Campana and chase Lohse from the game. With runners on second and third, Jason Motte retired Darwin Barney to end the Cubs’ rally.

By that point in the game, the Cubs had out-hit the Cardinals 11-1.

Nonetheless, the Cardinals rallied. Theriot singled into right field before Pujols scored him with a double into the left-field gap. With Berkman coming to the plate, the Cubs called upon left-hander Sean Marshall to make the veteran switch hitter bat right-handed. The stratagem didn’t work. Berkman lined a single back up the middle to score Pujols and even the game, 4-4.

From there, both bullpens put on a show. Motte, Trever Miller, and Miguel Batista combined for a scoreless seventh inning, while Marshall worked around a leadoff single by Yadier Molina. Batista and Kerry Wood threw scoreless eighth and ninth innings, which included a double for the first career hit by Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter, a rookie making his major league debut.

Fernando Salas retired the side in order in the 10th, while the Cubs called upon Carlos Marmol to get out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam by striking out Berkman and retiring Berkman on a line drive to left field.

Eduardo Sanchez threw two scoreless innings for the Cardinals and Marmol threw a scoreless 11th inning before giving way to Jeff Samardzija for the bottom of the 12th. The former University of Notre Dame wide receiver retired the first two batters he faced. With Pujols stepping to the plate and Berkman on deck, Cubs manager Mike Quade went to the mound to visit with his young right-hander. If Pujols and Berkman had each reached base, the Cardinals had Sanchez due up next and no bench players to pinch hit for him.

After Samardzija missed with his first two pitches, he threw a breaking ball below the knees. Pujols sent the pitch into the visitor’s bullpen for his second home run of the game and the ninth game-winning home run of his career. It marked the 41st multi-home run game of Pujols’ career.[3]

“I thought I made a pretty good pitch,” Samardzija said. “He put the barrel on it and it went. That’s Albert Pujols.”[4]

Quade took responsibility for the decision to pitch to Pujols after the game, though Samardzija said he agreed with the decision. The Cubs had intentionally walked Pujols in the 10th inning to load the bases with one out.

“I’m not in the habit of walking people with two out and nobody on,” Quade said. “I understand how good this guy is, so we’ll have to rethink that a little bit. The pitcher’s spot was three holes away. That was our salvation. You figure if you keep him in the ballpark, you take your chances, and we couldn’t.”[5]

With his two scoreless innings, Sanchez earned the win and lowered his ERA for the season to 2.10. Altogether, Motte, Miller, Batista, Salas, and Sanchez combined for 6 1/3 scoreless innings.

“Today was a tough loss, but what a great game,” Wells said. “I don’t want to sit here and talk so much about Albert Pujols, but the guy’s a force. He doesn’t have the kind of numbers he has for nothing.”[6]

By the end of the third and final game of the series, the Cubs’ attitude would shift from admiration to frustration.

The series finale pitted Chicago’s Carlos Zambrano against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter. Neither pitcher allowed a runner into scoring position until the bottom of the third, when Daniel Descalso singled to right and advanced to third base before being stranded.

In the top of the fourth, Barney led off with a single to left and Castro followed with a ground ball into center. After Carlos Pena lined out to left, Aramis Ramirez doubled into the right-field gap to give the Cubs a 2-0 lead.

The Cardinals finally broke through in the bottom of the sixth. Pujols reached on an infield single and Jon Jay singled up the middle. Allen Craig then singled to enter as well, bringing Pujols around to score and cutting the Cubs’ lead to 2-1.

That proved to be the Cardinals’ only run against Zambrano, who left after seven innings with just five hits and two walks allowed over 107 pitches. After Marshall threw a scoreless eighth inning, Quade called upon Marmol for the save.

Molina led off the inning with a single to center before Marmol struck out Descalso and Colby Rasmus. With one out remaining, Theriot jumped on a 2-2 slider and drove it down the left-field line to bring pinch-runner Tony Cruz home with the tying run.

“You can’t go up there trying to pull the ball,” Theriot said. “It’s one of those things. I got a pitch I could handle. His slider’s the best in the game.”[7]

Cubs catcher Koyie Hill had initially called for a fastball, but Marmol opted instead for the slider. Theriot admitted after the game that he was looking for the slider.[8]

“I made a mistake,” Marmol said. “I threw it right down the middle. I missed with my best pitch and got hit. What can you say? I died with my best pitch.”[9]

In the 10th, La Russa called upon Salas in place of Carpenter. Though Carpenter wasn’t positioned to earn the win, he had held the Cubs to just two runs on seven hits over nine innings.

“The player of the game shouldn’t have been myself,” Pujols said. “I think it should have been Chris Carpenter and Salas.”[10]

Salas retired the side in order to bring Pujols to the plate against Cubs reliever Rodrigo Lopez, who had retired Pujols in each of their 12 previous meetings.[11] This time, with the fans on their feet, Pujols pulled a 2-1 pitch over the left-field wall.

“It was almost like everybody knew it was going to happen,” Theriot said.[12]

Moments after the game’s end, Zambrano expressed to reporters his displeasure with the weekend in general and Marmol’s slider to Theriot in particular.

“We should know better than this,” Zambrano said. “We play like a Triple-A team. This is embarrassing. Embarrassing for the team and the owners. Embarrassing for the fans. Embarrassed – that’s the word for this team.

“We should know better than what we (did) on the field. We should know that Ryan Theriot is not a good fastball hitter. We should know that as a team. We should play better here. We stink. That’s all I’ve got to say.”[13]

The 2011 season marked Zambrano’s final year with the Cubs. In January 2012, the Cubs traded him to the Marlins for Chris Volstad.

The weekend series would spark Pujols for the remainder of June, as he hit .317/.419/.778 with eight homers and 14 RBIs for the month. He finished the season with 37 homers and 99 RBIs and finished fifth in the National League MVP voting.

Pujols hit five home runs in the 2011 postseason, including three in the World Series against the Texas Rangers as the Cardinals captured the world championship.

“He’s a guy who will … amaze you with the things he can do,” Carpenter said after watching Pujols hit his second consecutive walk-off home run. “We’re very fortunate here in this city – the guys of the media, the coaches, the players – to see him play every day. It (will) be neat that when I’m 70 (I’ll get) to say that I played with him.”[14]

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[1] Rick Hummell, “Garcia finds form,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 2011: B5.

[2] Joe Strauss, “Albert’s homer wins it,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 5, 2011: Page C7.

[3] Joe Strauss, “Albert’s homer wins it,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 5, 2011: Page C7.

[4] Joe Strauss, “Albert’s homer wins it,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 5, 2011: Page C1.

[5] Paul Sullivan, “No avoiding this finish,” Chicago Tribune, June 5, 2011: Page 3-5.

[6] Paul Sullivan, “No avoiding this finish,” Chicago Tribune, June 5, 2011: Page 3-5.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Homer. Win. Repeat.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 6, 2011: Page B5.

[8] Paul Sullivan, “Fed-up ‘Z’ rips Cubs, Marmol after 6th loss in row,” Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2011: Page 2-4.

[9] Paul Sullivan, “Fed-up ‘Z’ rips Cubs, Marmol after 6th loss in row,” Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2011: Page 2-4.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Homer. Win. Repeat.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 6, 2011: Page B5.

[11] Rick Hummel, “Homer. Win. Repeat.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 6, 2011: Page B1.

[12] Rick Hummel, “Homer. Win. Repeat.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 6, 2011: Page B5.

[13] Paul Sullivan, “Fed-up ‘Z’ rips Cubs, Marmol after 6th loss in row,” Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2011: Page 2-1.

[14] Rick Hummel, “Homer. Win. Repeat.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 6, 2011: Page B5.

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