Albert Pujols is hitting 700 home runs in the final days of his career

PHOENIX — We sat down for 20 minutes Saturday afternoon, and Albert Pujols insisted he wouldn’t change his mind about retiring after this season, no matter how close he got to the glorious 700-pitch club.

Well, as it turns out, it can be a controversial topic.

The icon of St. Louis Cardinals came right out and hit two home runs on Phoenix night at Chase Field – just missing a third – as part of a 4-for-4 night that saw him pass Hall of Famer Stan Musial for the second- most total bases in baseball history.

It may no longer be whether Pujols can hit 700 home runs, but rather: how soon will he do it?

“Yeah,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said, “he will.”

The way Pujols is hitting these days, with five home runs in his last five games for a .692 total, who would argue?

He didn’t have a single homer in June and only had six in the first half of the season, but he has hit six solo games since Aug. 10, more than the team’s seven entire games combined.

Pujols, who has 13 homers on the year, is now five away from eclipsing Alex Rodriguez for fourth on the all-time home run list and eight away from 700 where only three men have gone before: Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714).

August 20: Designated player from St.  Louis Cardinals shortstop Albert Pujols celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

August 20: Designated player from St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Albert Pujols celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Pujols, 42, suddenly looks like the same guy who terrorized the National League in his first 11 years. He went 4-for-4 with two homers and two singles in the Cardinals’ 16-7 rout of the Arizona Diamondbacks, becoming the first player age 42 or older to hit four hits and two homers.

While the rest of the baseball world may be feeling the effects of the dogs of summer, Pujols is suddenly rejuvenated. He is hitting .438 in the second half with a ridiculous .918 slugging percentage. The all-time second half hitter is .908 by Barry Bonds when he hit a record 73 homers in 2001.

“He’s just incredible to watch,” Cardinals All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado said. “When we got him, I knew he was going to help us win games, but honestly, I don’t know where we would be without him.”

Well, the Cardinals have just a few months to figure it out because no matter what happens the rest of the season, Pujols insists he’s calling it a career after the Cardinals’ last game.

“I’m still going to retire regardless of whether I end up at 693, 696, 700, whatever,” Pujols told USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t get the numbers. If you would have told me 22 years ago that I would be this close, I would have told you that you are crazy. My career has been amazing.”

Well, nothing will change your mind?

“If I can’t hit 70 homers, I’m not coming back,” Pujols said with a laugh. “No, I’ve had enough. I’m glad I made the announcement that this was when I signed. Really, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

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Pujols, who didn’t even have a job when spring training started, came very close to spoiling this Hollywood story. He had three other job offers, and at least one that was going to pay him significantly more than the $2 million the Cardinals eventually offered, with others promising more playing time.

But once the Cardinals came calling, the job search was over.

He packed his bags and was in Cardinals camp the next morning, preparing for his farewell tour.

“I obviously got a lot less money and less promises,” Pujols said, “but this is where I want to be. This is where I wanted to finish my senior year and I thank God for allowing me to open this door to come here to finish my career.”

While everyone else might have thought it would just be a ceremonial joy ride into the night, Pujols had other ideas.

“It was awesome to have the opportunity to come back to St. Louis, where it all started for me 21 years ago,” he said. “This organization thought I could help. I didn’t just come back to celebrate my senior year, but I knew I could help. That means a lot to me.

“It’s very special to help this organization win in any way possible and to enjoy my last drive through this city.”

It was the Los Angeles Dodgers, Pujols said, that revived him. He was released by the Los Angeles Angels last May in the final year of his 10-year, $240 million contract. The Dodgers, even without a DH in the National League last year, decided to give him a shot. Pujols became a luxury hitter, hitting .254 with 12 homers in 189 at-bats to help lead the Dodgers to the postseason.

“I had so much respect for this organization, so much respect for the players, and I was so blessed to have the opportunity to get back to the playoffs,” Pujols said. “I was really excited to come back and play this year because they gave me the joy, they gave me that thrill to be back in the postseason.”

Now, it’s like 2011 all over again. Pujols has the Cardinals atop the National League Central with a five-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers feeling like he’s a kid again.

He hit a 437-foot homer off veteran lefty Madison Bumgarner in the second inning, a 429-foot homer in the fourth inning, and almost came back in the sixth when the ball left his bat at 109.4 mph, bouncing off the left-field wall. field.

He even tried to steal second base in the sixth inning, barely got thrown out and produced another single in the seventh.

It was a one-man show.

“I feel really good to tell you the truth,” Pujols said. “I really didn’t know what I could do, but I know I put in a lot of hard work with the gift the Lord gave me. I didn’t know what the year would be like, but what I could control was dedication and hard work.

“Because of that hard work, I’m able to get better, stay healthy, and do a lot of things in this game that a lot of players have never done.”

Pujols, who will go down as one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time, can’t even keep track of all his accomplishments. Chris Conroy, the Cardinals assistant coach, keeps bringing in baseballs for Pujols to sign and autograph, with Pujols asking exactly what happened.

On this night, the historic feat passed Musial, the Cardinals’ all-time great, in total bases (6,141) for second behind Hank Aaron (6,856). And yes, Conroy did get the baseball with the home ball bouncing back onto the field.

“It’s just crazy, every day I go to a game,” Pujols says, “they’re asking for a baseball. I’m like, “Okay, what’s this about?” They say, “oh, you just tied or passed the other guy.” I’ll say, “What, I didn’t know that. I swear, I’m not you BS, I have no idea.”

However, he knew quite a bit about the history of this landmark.

Musial has a huge statue at the entrance to Busch Stadium. He was Pujols’ mentor and idol when Pujols came to the Cardinals, and Pujols was touched, even a little emotional, to be the one to overshadow Stan the Man.

“Just to be mentioned in the same sentence is awesome,” Pujols said. “What he has done for this organization is unbelievable. I’m sure he’s looking down and smiling at me.”

Now, one magical milestone remains. It’s what everyone in baseball is talking about. The 700 home club, the most famous fraternity in all of baseball.

“We talk about it all the time when he’s not around,” Arenado says. “I mean, 700 home runs? This is something that almost no one has seen. It would be very special.”

While everyone is confused about 700, Pujols will tell you he’s most proud of a number no one talks about these days: He has 2,187 career RBIs. The only men in history with more RBIs are Aaron (2,297) and Ruth (2,214).

“That’s the number that means everything to me,” Pujols said. “That’s how you win games. It takes four walks to get an RBI. It takes a homer to get at least one, or a base hit.

“That’s how you win, scoring runs. If someone comes to me and says RBIs are overrated, I’ll tell them they’re crazy.”

The dream, of course, is for Pujols to walk away from the game with the ultimate prize, another World Series championship. It already has two rings, with plenty of room for another. But no matter what happens over the last six weeks, no matter if he hits 700 homers, no matter how far the Cardinals advance into October, he leaves the game with an unblemished reputation and a plaque in Cooperstown.

He played the game clean, played it right and respected the game every time he stepped on the field.

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Who else would be OK with pinch-hitting by a rookie right-hander on the mound, with the crowd of 34,248 booing hometown boy Nolan Gorman and offering encouragement as he stepped to the plate? When Gorman delivered a single, guess who was on the top step of the ladder cheering wildly?

Yes, Pujols.

It was a moment Gorman will never, ever forget. He’ll be able to tell his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that there was an August night, with 150 friends and family members present, when he hit for the big Hall of Famer.

“It was awesome,” said Gorman, who has an autographed jersey from Pujols. “That was all I was thinking about doing this job for Albert.”

This is Pujols, the ultimate teammate, role model and ambassador.

It hurts him to see players like Fernando Tatis Jr. convicted of performance-enhancing drugs, knowing their careers are forever tarnished. He hopes Tatis and others suspended for PEDs can be forgiven, but knows they will never be seen the same again.

“I don’t judge people, but it saddens me to see that they’re from the same country, the Dominican Republic, and the mistake the guy made,” Pujols said. “It doesn’t make you a bad person, but you made a bad choice. All it takes is one bad choice and it just stinks not only for them, but for baseball and the people in our country.

“I’m on the radar like everybody else, but there’s a huge responsibility that you carry with you,” Pujols added. “That responsibility I have to God has helped me to have the success I have had. I know there are a lot of people, a country that has followed me throughout my career and I want to make them proud.”

Mission accomplished, 700 hostages or not.

“No matter what happens, man,” Pujols says, “I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve had an incredible career. How blessed am I?”

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Albert Pujols approaches 700 home runs, insists he’s still retiring

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