Albert Pujols chases 700 homers: Cardinals legend now 1 short of Alex Rodriguez with No. 695

The 42-year-old stoking excitement for a home run chase in 2022 last led MLB in long balls — and last won MVP — in 2009, when his St. Louis Cardinals made a splashy deadline trade for Matt Holliday, whose son was just the No. 1 pick in the July draft.

When Albert Pujols rejoined the Cardinals for a farewell tour in 2022, he was sitting on 679 career homers. He hadn’t been an above-average hitter in a season since 2016, couldn’t play the field and didn’t hit right-handers well enough to bat regularly for a team with playoff aspirations. But the too-cute-to-work reunion with the Cardinals has worked, because of course it has, and now he’s been a spark plug for the team’s rise to the top of the NL Central.

After belting two homers in a game against Arizona earlier in August, the impossible-seeming run at 700 definitively turned into a real possibility.

It had seemed impossible because his trendline had long ago turned south.

St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols celebrates after hitting a two-run home run during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

We like to say who’s on pace for history, who’s got the trajectory of an all-time leader. But divide the all-time home run list into age brackets and you’ll see we’re fooling ourselves. The leaders through age 30 are Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jimmie Foxx and Pujols, who had a whopping 408 by the end of 2010. The leaders from age 31 on are Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth, the only members of the elusive 700-homer club Pujols is trying to join. They all hit more after 31 than before.

Pujols never had that sort of pace in his 30s. After notching 32 or more homers every year with the Cardinals, he managed it only once with the Angels (40 in 2015). For the latter part of his tenure with the Angels, the question of homer history was secondary to the question of how much longer he could stand to go out there. He struggled to run or play the field because of repeated foot and leg problems; the team kept disappointing; his batting line kept sinking. At one point his (less acclaimed) stature as a 100 WAR player slipped away because he was accumulating negative value.

But Pujols kept playing, seemingly finding a second wind with the Dodgers after parting ways with the Angels last year. He kept going up to bat and trying to tap into a little of the magic. And at least for now, he has found it. His eight homers in a scorching August are the most he’s hit in any month since June 2015 (when he hit 13).

He needs one homers to tie, and two to pass Alex Rodriguez for fourth on the all-time homer list. With five more homers, he’d reach that star that seemed so unreachable. Already, though, he’s reclaimed our attention. A legend whose time had passed is once again the man of the hour.

Tracking Albert Pujols' pursuit of 700 homers

Pujols is currently at 695. He hit the most recent home run against the Chicago Cubs on Sunday.

Predictably, it came against a left-hander — Cubs reliever Brandon Hughes. He's now smashed 12 of his 16 homers in 2022 off southpaws. In the process, Pujols extended his new major league record by homering off the 451st different pitcher of his career. He was previously tied with Barry Bonds, who homered off of 449 different pitchers.

The two-run shot in the eighth inning also secured the first and final runs of the game as St. Louis posted a 2-0 win over its division rival while extending its NL Central lead to eight games over the Milwaukee Brewers at 79-55.

The Cardinals have 28 games regular-season games remaining as Pujols seeks five more home runs to reach 700. Half of those games are at home. Up next, a four-game home series against the Washington Nationals.