Fun factoid about Albert Pujols' first career home run on April 6, 2001, off Armando Reynoso: He played right field that day.
I love the cycle of baseball. A couple of weeks after that first home run, Pujols homered off John Franco, who began his career in 1984 as a Cincinnati Reds teammate of player-manager Pete Rose, who began his career in 1963. Pujols has homered off 386 pitchers, including five Hall of Famers. He has hit 13 grand slams, 15 homers in extra innings, has four three-homer games (plus another in the World Series) and once did this to Brad Lidge:
He has won three MVP awards (and finished second in the voting four times), hit .300 with 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs the first 10 seasons of his career and has posted an OPS over 1.000 in 77 postseason games. So, why has his chase to 600 career home runs felt like ... well, not such a big deal?
Pujols hit his 599th home run Tuesday, a towering three-run shot down the left-field line off Bartolo Colon -- No. 3 in his career off Colon -- for his third homer in five games, after hitting just five in his first 42 games. With his next one, he'll become the ninth member of the 600 club, and no matter how you feel about a few members of that club -- Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa -- it will be a monumental achievement for Pujols.
Yes, he's a shell of his peak years in St. Louis, when he twice hit above .350, routinely belted 40 home runs, won Gold Gloves and ran the bases like a much faster man. But he hasn't hit .300 since 2010 and he has been below replacement level this season. Remarkably, he still has four years remaining on his contract after this one, although considering the way he hobbles around these days after years of foot injuries, who knows if he'll actually make it to the end of it.
Still, it seems right to celebrate one of the best players in the history of the game. Given timeline adjustments and other factors, I'd rate Pujols as the greatest first baseman of all time, better than Lou Gehrig. In those glorious first 10 seasons, he hit .331/.426/.624 while averaging 41 home runs and 43 doubles. They called him The Machine. By the time the Angels signed him for 2012, he was already in decline; they just didn't know it yet.
At some point, the Angels will have to make a tough decision on Pujols. Maybe next year, maybe the year after. Maybe they let him play out the contract. Those won't be fun times or discussions. Maybe, like Ken Griffey Jr., he'll simply decide to quietly leave in the middle of the season.
So that's why we should appreciate No. 600 when it comes in the next few days. I don't know how many more joyful moments Pujols will provide.
Robbie Ray might be making the leap: Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander Robbie Ray was an obvious pick as a breakout candidate for 2017. He's one of the hardest-throwing lefty starters in the game and averaged 11.3 K's per nine innings last season. It was only a matter of improving his command and limiting the walks and fastballs down the middle. On Tuesday, he dominated the Pirates with the best game of his career: a four-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts and no walks, the first complete game of his career.
Ray has now tossed three straight scoreless starts, with a streak of 24 2/3 scoreless innings. Given his control issues, pitch efficiency was a problem last year for Ray and he averaged just 5.4 innings per start. Helped by these past three outings -- 9 IP, 7 IP and 7 2/3 IP -- he's now averaging 6.3 innings per start. He has 84 strikeouts in 69 innings, batters are hitting .193 off him, and he hasn't walked a batter in his past two starts. I also love that Torey Lovullo let him finish off this game, even with a slim 3-0 lead. Ray had a 1-2-3 ninth, including striking out Josh Bell with his 115th and final pitch: a 95 mph fastball and his 10th strikeout on his fastball. Awesome. This is a guy to get excited about, and he's pitching his way into All-Star consideration.
Hey, the Toronto Blue Jays aren't dead: So, apparently I declared the Blue Jays dead back when they were 2-11 or 6-17 or some other day. Well, they're not dead! They've gone 19-10 since that terrible start and are 25-27 after beating the Reds 6-4, with Josh Donaldson showing why the team missed him:
FanGraphs estimated their playoffs odds at 12 percent when they were 6-17. In other words, it was definitely a premature declaration of death. The odds were back up to 31 percent before Tuesday's win, including 7 percent to win the division. The surprising thing is they haven't done it with their rotation. The bullpen has been excellent in this stretch, Jose Bautista -- who also homered Tuesday -- has heated up, and, surprise of surprises, Justin Smoak has continued to hit.
Play of the day: You know things are going well when you double on a pitch that bounces in front of home plate. No wonder Corey Dickerson leads the AL in batting average and hits:
Corey "Vlad" Dickerson. pic.twitter.com/qhEyMqiMFn— MLB (@MLB) May 31, 2017
Quick thoughts ... Seems like Hunter Strickland got off easy with a six-game suspension while Bryce Harper got four games (pending appeals). As a reliever, Strickland would likely pitch in just two, maybe three, of six games, and face 10 to 15 batters. Harper will miss about 20 plate appearances if the four games are held up. Maybe relievers who throw at batters need to get longer suspensions. ... Chris Sale got a big ovation in his return to Chicago, although he then had his worst outing of the season, scuffling through 111 pitches in five innings. He got the win, however, as the Red Sox pounded Jose Quintana (who has given up 15 runs in his past two games). ... Tough three games for the Twins: 15-inning loss Sunday, that brutal blown lead Monday to the Astros and a 7-2 loss Tuesday. They begin a 10-game road trip after Wednesday's game. Crucial stretch.