Pujols' Gutsy Defense Key To Cardinals Victory


Albert Pujols has had plenty of game-changing moments on the baseball field. He's hit home runs in the biggest situations, as Brad Lidge can readily attest. He's come through time and time again when the Cardinals have needed a spark. You can debate all day long whether he'll be worth the contract he's likely to receive this offseason from someone, but there's really no debating how much he's been worth up until now. Pujols has been the best player in baseball for virtually his entire career, and the Cards' recent history would look very different without him. 

So it should really come as no surprise Albert had a hand in the single biggest play of the Cardinals' 5-3 victory yesterday. What is a little surprising, though, is the fact Albert's bat had absolutely nothing to do with it. 

Top of the sixth inning, Cards up a single run at 3-2, Chase Utley leading off. Edwin Jackson, in one of the very few miscues he committed in the game, issues a walk. Leadoff walks are just asking for disaster, particularly when facing a lineup with the potency of Philadelphia's. 

Hunter Pence, hitting after Utley, works the count full. On the 3-2 pitch, with Utley running, Pence reaches out and taps a slider to Rafael Furcal at short. Furcal comes up with the ball and fires over to first. That's when things get interesting. 

Utley, one of the most heads-up players in the game, rounds second base and, without breaking stride, races for third. It's just the sort of play you expect from Utley, who plays the angles and margins as well as any player in baseball. A routine grounder, and Utley's intelligence and aggression is going to get the Phillies a man on third with just one out. 

Albert, seeing Utley headed for third, comes off the bag at first and fires a strike over to David Freese covering the bag. Freese puts down the tag and Utley is out by plenty. (And received a tag right in the jaw for his trouble.) Instead of one out and the tying run at third base, the Phillies have a runner at first. 

Ryan Howard comes to the plate after Pence and promptly hits what would have been a sacrifice fly if Utley had been standing at third. Instead, it's a harmless out. Jackson gets Shane Victorino on a grounder to second, the Cards retain their lead, and Pujols' gamble pays off in a huge way. 

It was a ballsy, heady play on both ends, from Utley taking the chance at stealing an extra base on a routine play to Albert giving up the easy out for a chance to get the lead runner. In the fraction of a second he had to react, Pujols made the decision to try and take the potential tying run off third and put it on first by coming off the bag and going for the much tougher out. 

If the play had gone wrong, it could have been disastrous, but the execution was flawless and Philadelphia never did manage to tie the game up. It's impossible to know how things would have played out following the Howard fly if that had knotted the game at three, but it's easy to envision the game proceeding in a much less positive fashion for the Cards. It could very easily have been a turning point, a fresh game for the Phillies and a completely different set of tactical decisions and situations. At the very least a tied game would have changed the way each manager utilised his respective pitching. 

He didn't put the ball over the wall, or even pick up an RBI in yesterday's game. Still, Albert Pujols had an enormous effect on the game. He was a part -- the key part, in fact -- of quite possibly the single most pivotal play of the evening, and that baseball acumen we've all become so used to seeing over the past decade we sometimes take it for granted was on full display. 

You can see the video of the play in question over at Major League Baseball's official site; sadly, MLB doesn't allow embedding of their videos in any way. It's a shame, too. I can fully understand doing all you can to drive page views, but if you're going to build the advertisements into the video -- which they do in this case -- then it seems to me any avenue to get the video itself more views would be desirable. Then again, what do I know? 

I know Albert Pujols did something special yesterday, and it may very well have changed the way the game played out. And really, that's all I need to know. Just watch the video, and pay attention to how quickly the decision to go to third has to be made. Such a small thing, really; just a fraction of a second. But the difference it made was huge. David Freese's home run will get most of the attention, and deservedly so. Chicks dig the long ball, after all, and it was a magnificent shot. Honestly, though, I'm not at all sure the tag he put down on Utley wasn't actually part of the more important play. 

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