How to give up a home run to Albert Pujols, an expert’s guide

How to give up a home run to Albert Pujols, an expert's guide

You don’t have to push Ryan Dempster at all. When you bring up the name Albert Pujols, the retired pitcher offers a response so good it seems rehearsed.

“I’m an expert in giving up home runs to Albert Pujols,” Dempster quips. “If you’re going to go get back surgery, you’re going to try to find the best physician to do that. But if you want to know how to give up home runs to Pujols, there’s nobody that’s more qualified than me.”

There’s some truth to that line. The two are very familiar with each other, having faced off in many heated divisional matchups between Pujols’ Cardinals and Dempster’s Chicago Cubs. And Dempster, a native of Gibsons, B.C., who spent 16 seasons in the majors, has the dubious honour of being the pitcher who’s allowed the most homers to Pujols. The St. Louis Cardinals slugger, who notched his 699th and 700th career home runs on Friday in an 11-0 thumping of the Los Angeles Dodgers, tagged Dempster for eight long balls in his 79 plate appearances against the pitcher.

“So much great competition between the two of us,” says Dempster, now an analyst for Chicago’s Marquee Sports Network. “He’s such a ferocious competitor. And for a long stretch of time, he was the best hitter in the game. So, to be able to compete against him and have success and have failures [made] moments you look back on way later in life and remember.”

Dempster has only pitched to one hitter more than Pujols during his career (he’s seen 87 plate appearances from Lance Berkman). And for his part, Pujols has only faced four pitchers more times than he’s stepped into the box against Dempster. The results of their frequent meeting tended to skew in favour of Pujols, who owns a .339/.456/.807 slash line against Dempster, with 14 walks versus just two strikeouts.

Dempster’s favourite story of battling Pujols includes even doses of success and failure.

The Cubs had a three-game cushion on the second-place Cardinals for the NL Central lead in early September 2008 with Dempster on the mound to start a key three-game series in St. Louis. The right-hander held a 3-0 lead into the sixth inning, when he surrendered back-to-back singles, bringing Pujols to the plate representing the tying run.

The slugger promptly deposited the first pitch he saw from Dempster — a fastball away — over the right-field fence.   

The Cardinals went on the win that game, 4-3, and Dempster recalls chatting with Cubs outfielder Jim Edmonds later that night. Edmonds, who had spent seven years playing alongside Pujols with the Cardinals, told the pitcher that the next time he faced Pujols late in a game, to beware of throwing him anything on the outer half of the plate. After about the sixth inning, Pujols tended to adjust his approach and tried to spray the ball to the opposite field, Edmonds explained.

Sure enough, the Cardinals visited the Cubs at Wrigley Field a few weeks later, providing Dempster with a chance for atonement.

“We clinched [the NL Central title] against the Cardinals and, the next day, I started against them,” says Dempster. “I remembered Pujols’ previous at-bat and told myself, ‘I’m not throwing him fastballs away because last time he hit it.’

“Jim also mentioned to me that Pujols never broke bats, so I said to myself, ‘I’m going to break his bat today,’” he continues. “I had nothing to lose. We just won the night before, so I was able to run a sinker in on his hands and I broke his bat. He was pissed off.”

When Dempster was traded to the American League toward the end of his career, Pujols was right there waiting. The Cubs dealt Dempster to the Texas Rangers just before the July trade deadline in 2012 and his first start with his new team was against Pujols and Los Angeles Angels.

The right-hander was tattooed for nine hits and eight runs over just 4.2 innings. Pujols didn’t homer, but Dempster still felt his impact.

“I think, personally, that Albert had a large piece in that,” Dempster says. “Just because of the scouting report he could give those hitters. We faced each other so many times — he’s seen me pitch not only when I faced him, but the many at-bats I had against his teammates and the amount of video he probably watched of me. So, he gave those guys a really good scouting report and they executed. Even good pitches I threw, they were on it.”

The 42-year-old Pujols has captured the baseball world’s attention with his recent home run chase. He announced in spring training that this campaign — his 22nd in the majors — will be his final one before retirement. The native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, returned to the Cardinals for one last hurrah after spending a decade with the Angels (plus a half-season with the Dodgers) and as his 2022 unfolded, he seemed to find new life, producing his strongest offensive numbers in years.

His climb in the record books intensified as he clubbed eight homers in August. Pujols moved into sole possession of the fourth spot on MLB’s all-time home run list when he hit his 697th homer on Sept. 11 to pass Alex Rodriguez and now, he trails just three men: Babe Ruth (714), Hank Aaron (755) and Barry Bonds (762).

Dempster says Pujols is the perfect blend of talent, work ethic and hitting IQ.

“He was an extremely good chess player,” says Dempster. “Knowing what you were going to throw, finding patterns in which you were going to pitch. You always had to try to stay one pitch ahead or change up what you were doing because if you stayed in the same kind of repetitive behaviours, he was going to take advantage of that. Maybe he’d sit on a pitch and if you made a mistake with that pitch, you’re going to pay.

“I always said, ‘When Albert was going good, if you made a mistake, he was going to hit a home run. If you executed your pitch, he still might hit a home run.’ That’s how good he was.”

As a self-proclaimed expert in the subject of surrendering long balls to Albert Pujols, Dempster has been closely watching the slugger conclude his Hall-of-Fame career on the highest of notes.

“He is as locked in right now as I think I’ve ever seen him,” says Dempster. To emphasize that, he points to a lyric from the 2005 song, “As Good As I Once Was.”

“‘I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was,’” says Dempster, quoting country music artist Toby Keith.

“Albert Pujols is living that right now, man.”

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