Drew Smyly was working into the seventh inning of a scoreless duel against the St. Louis Cardinals and knew one mistake could change the game -- especially to a hitter like Albert Pujols, up for his third at-bat in Monday's game.
To his delight, the Chicago Cubs left-hander threw the pitch exactly where he wanted it. It was a high fastball, 4.23 feet off the ground. Smyly's goal was a change-of-eye-level offering to set up Pujols for the next pitch, which would be something down. Instead, there was no next pitch.
To the surprise of just about everyone watching -- especially the man who threw it -- Pujols swung at the high fastball and pulled it deep into the night air for his 693rd career home run. He rounded the bases at Wrigley Field as his teammates watched wide-eyed and smiling.
"It was insane," rookie Nolan Gorman said. "You don't see a lot of people hitting balls like that out."
It was the second-highest pitch hit for a home run by any player this season. For Pujols, it was the highest he has hit since at least 2008 -- and only the third-highest pitch during that time frame that he has even put in play.
"He's 'The Machine' for a reason," Smyly said with a smirk afterward. "He's back."
That home run was the lone tally in a 1-0 Cardinals win, adding yet another chapter to the legendary career of one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen.
If that was all the 42-year-old now-part-time player did this month, it would still be noteworthy. But it was far from a singular event. Pujols has been on fire -- he has seven home runs with 14 RBIs and a .548 batting average since Aug. 10 -- and no one is happier about it than his teammates.
"It's cool to be a part of history," NL MVP favorite Paul Goldschmidt said this week. "I'll never get to be part of anything like this again. I'm trying to take it all in."
All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado added: "He truly believes he should never lose a battle or ever get beat. Even at this age. That's something I admire."
Pujols hasn't gotten beat very often in August. This month, out of players with a minimum 40 plate appearances, he ranks first in MLB in batting average, OBP, slugging and OPS and is tied for first in home runs. Meanwhile, 10 of his 14 home runs this year have come since the start of July. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, no player age 42 or older -- not even Barry Bonds -- has ever hit more than 13 home runs in July or later of a season. Just as they were during his first stint with the Cardinals a decade earlier, Pujols' at-bats are must-watch events once again.
"Let's say I have an O-fer and I strike out and I'm bummed out and I put my hat down," Arenado said. "I hear Albert Pujols is coming up, I want to make sure I hurry up and get out there to watch. As the year's gone on, I'm not surprised because of the work he puts in."
That is a recurring theme when you talk to people close to Pujols: This is no accident. More than two decades into his career, he's still looking for ways to improve -- and his hard work is paying off.
"He's covering curveballs down and fastballs up," Smyly explained of Pujols' recent approach at the plate. "At least against lefties, you can feel him trying to hit the ball in front of the plate instead of seeing it deep, like most hitters. You hear that a lot in baseball, 'see it deep.' It's kind of opposite of what most hitters do. He's trying to hit the ball in front of the plate; it looks like he wants to pull everything. Usually, if you're doing that you have to cheat on a fastball or curveball. He's hitting both right now."
In fact, while 10 of Pujols' 2022 home runs have come on fastballs, he has also hit three off breaking balls and one off a changeup. And while his ability to adjust his approach has put individual accomplishments -- such as becoming the fourth member of baseball's 700-home run club -- within reach, winning is still the most important thing for Pujols.
Gorman said: "The coolest thing is not only is he doing this to get to 700 home runs, he's here to help this team win. He's made that a point."
The Cardinals are doing plenty of winning, in part, thanks to Pujols. They were three games out of first place in the NL Central when this month (and his hot streak) began, but now lead the Milwaukee Brewers by six games.
"I wasn't with him when he was in his prime," Arenado said. "Waino [Adam Wainwright] and these guys say this is what he would do on a nightly basis."
Wainwright's perspective is unique. A teammate of Pujols' from 2005 to 2011, and now again, he's being transported back to Albert's prime.
"He has a sound when he hits it," Wainwright said, standing in the dugout earlier this week. "And he does that thing, where he stands up, you know it's a homer. He has that look about him."
Wainwright imitated the turn and look Pujols does when he knows the ball is leaving the playing field. Smyly was the latest in a line of 449 different pitchers to see that move, which ties Pujols with Bonds for home runs hit off the most pitchers in MLB history.
"He finally got me," Smyly said. "He's the GOAT."
His teammates would agree, and days later that home run was still the talk of the Cardinals' clubhouse.
"I was in the hole for that one, standing on the top step of the dugout," infielder Paul DeJong said. "I just saw where it was and his swing and I couldn't believe it. I figured he may as well pimp it because if that ball hits the wall he may not get a double. But he knows when he gets one."
"You look at your teammates and you say, 'How high was that pitch?' You can't even believe he got on top. But it is Albert," Wainwright added. "What do you do? That's a really good pitch. That gets a lot of people out."
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol tilted his head slightly when asked about Pujols' 14th home run of the season.
"You don't get to that pitch and hit it out," Marmol said. "I can't remember who was standing next to me, I think it was Goldy [Goldschmidt], who said, 'How did he even do that?' Which coming from him was interesting because he's done some pretty special stuff himself."
Goldschmidt is in fact firing on all cylinders, currently a candidate for the first Triple Crown title in 10 years. But he remains in awe of what Pujols has done this season.
"There's probably five of those moments with him this year," Goldschmidt said. "That was a great swing. It's kind of comical. All you can do is smile and laugh. That's why he's one of the best of all time."
As much as his teammates are admiring Pujols' accomplishments, the conversation almost always reverts back to his presence in the clubhouse.
DeJong recalls encouragement and a big hug after getting recalled from the minors recently. Gorman is "soaking" in all the sage advice from the future Hall of Fame player. Juan Yepez has had Pujols as a mentor he can count on throughout the season.
It's those moments Pujols will be remembered for as much as the home runs and myriad of record-breaking stats he has put up in a career that's getting a second act back where it all started over two decades ago, in St. Louis.
Pujols has shown no indication he's returning for a 23rd season in 2023, but then again, he's now seven home runs from one milestone and 21 from another one.
"I don't know if he really wants to be done after this year," DeJong said. "He's playing amazing. If he goes out like this, he's going to go out on top. I think he can pass Babe Ruth, but we'll see what happens."