Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols hits his first career home run in breakout game

Albert Pujols chose an ideal moment for his first career home run.

The 2001 Cardinals had just lost their first three games, allowing 32 runs during a winless season-opening series against the Rockies. The series hadn’t gone any better for Pujols, who went just 1-for-9 in Colorado, including 0-for-5 in the second game of the season.

As Pujols stepped to the plate against Arizona Diamondbacks starter Armando Reynoso on April 6, 2001, he had the opportunity to show the spark he demonstrated as the Cardinals’ leading hitter during spring training.  With the Diamondbacks ahead 2-0 following a Mark Grace home run, Pujols had an opportunity to answer.

Ahead in the count 1-2, Reynoso attacked Pujols with another breaking ball. It hung out over the plate. Like so many homers to come, Pujols turned on it, smacking the ball deep into the left-field seats.

“First career big league home run,” Arizona Diamondbacks broadcaster Thom Brennaman said as Pujols rounded third base, “and after watching this kid at batting practice and that swing right there, it will not be nearly the last.”[1]

Reynoso helped his own cause with two-run double in the bottom of the fourth, but the Cardinals rallied for eight runs in the fifth to take the lead for good.

Craig Paquette started the rally with a solo homer and pitcher Dustin Hermanson followed with a double. After Fernando Vina singled, J.D. Drew walked to load the bases. Lankford smacked a three-run triple into the left-field gap to give St. Louis a 6-4 lead.

First-year manager Bob Brenly, managing his first game at Bank One Ballpark, replaced Reynoso with 21-year veteran Mike Morgan. Pujols showed little deference for the seasoned right-hander, stroking an RBI double down the left-field line to score Ray Lankford and make the score 7-4.

Mike Matheny added an RBI single to score Pujols, and Hermanson and Vina each added RBI singles before the inning ended with the Cardinals leading 10-4.

“Once that snowball started rolling downhill, I’m not sure it would have made a difference who we brought in,” Brenly said.[2]

Vina, a former standout at Arizona State University, added a two-run triple in the seventh and the Cardinals’ bullpen held on for the 12-9 win despite late home runs from Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez and Matt Williams.

Pujols finished the game with three hits and three RBIs, but was upstaged by Vina, who went 5-for-5 with three RBIs. Paquette finished the day with three hits while Matheny and Hermanson each had two.

Hermanson, who was making his first appearance for the Cardinals, hit better than he pitched, as he allowed six earned runs and walked four in five innings. Steve Kline threw two innings of scoreless relief and Dave Veres closed out the game in the ninth.

The following day, in an 8-4 win over Arizona, Pujols went 2-for-4 with a two-run double and three RBIs, raising his average to .333. The Pujols Era was officially in swing, though manager Tony La Russa cautioned that Bobby Bonilla would soon be activated from the disabled list and would bump someone from the roster.

“I was anxious at Coors Field on opening day, but after my first at-bat against Mike Hampton, it was like, ‘Just relax and play your game,’” Pujols said. “No matter what level you are, this is still baseball. You have to be aggressive.”[3]

“He’s doing great,” La Russa said of Pujols. “He’s special, but part of me can’t help but think that he’d still be better off in Memphis at this stage of his career.”[4]

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz cautioned La Russa against such a move.

“If La Russa sends Pujols to the minor leagues, the manager would be smart to make the trip with him,” Miklasz wrote. “That, or face an angry mob, because Cardinals fans undoubtedly are looking forward to seeing Pujols make his home debut this week at Busch Stadium.”[5]

Ultimately, La Russa and the Cardinals decided to keep Pujols around. When Bonilla was activated ahead of the home opener, John Mabry’s rights were sold to the Florida Marlins. Meanwhile, Pujols hit a two-run homer in a 3-2 home-opening win.

After the season, Pujols admitted that his slow start in Colorado briefly worried him.

“At first, I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready,’” he said, “but some of my teammates like (Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds) said, ‘Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Just go have fun. Just think of it as the minor leagues.’”[6]

He went on bat .329 with a .403 on-base percentage, 37 home runs, and 130 RBIs while appearing in at least 30 games at first base, third base, left field, and right field. Along the way, he was a unanimous selection for the Rookie of the Year Award, won the Silver Slugger Award, make his first all-star appearance, and place fourth in the MVP voting.

“He sent a real message,” La Russa said. “Phoenix was the first shot he fired, but he had a lot more to do and he did it.”[7]

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[1] “Pujols hits his first Major League home run,”

[2] Mark Gonzales, “Big inning tops D-Backs,” Arizona Republic, April 7, 2001.

[3] Bernie Miklasz, “Pujols makes case for steady job with Redbirds,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 8, 2001.

[4] Bernie Miklasz, “Pujols makes case for steady job with Redbirds,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 8, 2001.

[5] Bernie Miklasz, “Pujols makes case for steady job with Redbirds,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 8, 2001.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.