PITTSBURGH – Albert Pujols was at PNC Park, which should have immediately sent shivers through anyone associated with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Yes, Pujols and his 703 career home runs retired from the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of last season. The slugger was at the ballpark Sunday, though, to make his broadcasting debut as part of Peacock’s streaming coverage on the morning matinee.
Yet the way Pujols tormented the Pirates over the years, one almost expected him to come down from the press box and hit another home run at PNC Park for the Cardinals – even in his coat and tie.
Alas, Pujols stayed at the very top of the ballpark and the Pirates wound up edging the St. Louis Cardinals 2-1 to complete a three-game series sweep.
It is still too early in the season to talk about a changing of the guard in the National League Central or the Pirates sending any type of message to the defending division champions.
And the 2023 Cardinals clearly aren’t the same as recent versions. They are 25-35 and seemingly missing something, though I have a hard time putting a finger on exactly what that is.
Nevertheless, as much as the Cardinals have tormented them over the years, it was a good sign for the Pirates to turn the tables – if only for the weekend.
The Pirates haven’t won a season series against the Cardinals since 2013 when they ended a string of 20 consecutive losing seasons, which still stands as the record for major North American professional sports.
Yet that season still ended in heartbreak for the Pirates in St. Louis. The Cardinals won the winner-take-all Game 5 of an NL Division Series at Busch Stadium.
Since then, the Cardinals have usually had their way with the Pirates, especially in recent seasons when St. Louis held a 45-22 advantage over a four-year span from 2019-22.
The Pirates now lead this year’s season series 5-2 as they also split a four-game series in St. Louis in April.
Pirates manager Derek Shelton downplayed the significance of who the opponent was and was more impressed with his team’s performance.
“Really, the message is that if you go out and play well then you give yourself a really good chance to win,” he said.
However, for those who predate Shelton’s arrival in 2020, taking three of three from the Cardinals is meaningful. Even though outfielder/first baseman Connor Joe is only in his first major-league season with the Pirates, he was drafted by the organization in 2014. He doesn’t take beating the Cardinals for granted.
“It’s kind of ingrained in us that every time we step on the field, we want to beat those guys, whether it’s us playing the State College Spikes or whatever,” Joe said.
So many times, the Pirates haven‘t played competitive baseball against the Cardinals. Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, who had three hits Sunday, is keenly aware of that as he broke into the big leagues with the Pirates in 2020.
However, Hayes senses a different attitude now when the Pirates play the Cardinals, much as when they play any opponent. Sunday’s win was the Pirates’ fifth in a row overall and pushed their record to 31-27 after seasons of 101 losses in 2021 and 100 losses in 2022.
“Whenever we’re playing our brand of baseball, I feel like we can compete with anyone,” Hayes said. “We showed flashes of it over the past few years. Obviously, we were super young (then). Getting that experience, facing certain guys in the bullpen, seeing certain starting pitchers, then really just getting more and more comfortable each year, I think that helps.”
Yet beating the Cardinals still means something – even with Pujols confined to the press box.