PITTSBURGH (AP)The chants for Albert Pujols began in earnest in the eighth inning, with most of the red-clad fans inside PNC Park yearning for one last regular season at bat for the St. Louis Cardinals slugger.
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol heard them. And ignored them.
”I think (Pujols) delivered what he needed to deliver over the last 162 (games),” Marmol said with a laugh about the future Hall of Fame slugger, who became one of four players in Major League history to reach 700 home runs behind a memorable second-half surge.
It was a surge that coincided with St. Louis’ push past Milwaukee to an NL Central Division title. The Cardinals – who went 43-24 in the second half – open the playoffs on Friday when they host Philadelphia in the best-of-three wild-card round at Busch Stadium.
”We competed well for 162 (games),” said Marmol, the fourth straight St. Louis manager to lead the Cardinals to the postseason in his first year on the job. ”And now the fun begins. We are ready to go.”
To prepare, Marmol gave most of his regulars the day off or let them sit after a plate appearance or two.
Tommy Edman had three of St. Louis’ eight hits. Matthew Liberatore (2-2), recalled from Triple-A Memphis earlier in the day, took the loss after allowing five runs in five innings.
Hard-throwing St. Louis reliever Jordan Hicks pitched a scoreless inning in his return from a stint on the injured list due to fatigue in his right (pitching) arm. Hicks can now get ready for the playoffs for the first time after missing each of the Cardinals’ past three postseason appearances due to injury.
”I think we have a great team and a great chance,” Hicks said. ”I just want to go out there and give it my best effort.”
The Cardinals will announce their pitching rotation for the series with the Phillies on Thursday. Philadelphia took four of the seven meetings between the teams during the regular season.
St. Louis finished 93-69, a three-game improvement over 2021.
While the Cardinals are heading back to the playoffs, Pittsburgh believes it is closer to the beginning of general manager Ben Cherington’s top-to-bottom rebuild than the start.
”To say how far away we are right now, I think it’s going to matter on what we do into the offseason, but I think we’re in good shape,” said third-year manager Derek Shelton, who will return in 2023.
The Pirates went 62-100 this season, a one-victory improvement over 2021 thanks in part to three hits from recently acquired Miguel Andujar and two by Diego Castillo.
Kevin Newman, Rodolfo Castro and Ji Hwan Bae drove in runs for Pittsburgh. Manny Banuelos (2-1) picked up the win in relief and Johan Ramirez worked the ninth for his second save of the season – first with the Pirates.
Shelton believes the way the young players performed in the finale – Pittsburgh had six rookies or second-year players in the lineup – is symbolic of where the franchise is going.
”There’s a lot of positive things,” Shelton said. ”It’s a really good way to end the year.”
PUJOLS BY THE NUMBERS
The city of St. Louis celebrated the 42-year-old slugger by designating Wednesday ”Albert Pujols Day.”
About 600 miles to the east, the Cardinals celebrated by letting Pujols take a breather before the playoffs. Pujols finished his 22-year career with 703 home runs (fourth all-time), 2,218 RBIs (second all-time), 6,211 total bases (second all-time) and 3,384 hits (10th-all-time).
St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina, who like Pujols is retiring, lined out to second as a pinch hitter in the seventh in his 2,224th and final regular season game.
”Really cool watching those guys finish,” Shelton said. ”To hear Albert in his speech in St. Louis say that he was thinking about retiring and didn’t, as a fan of baseball, I think it was really good for baseball that he had a really good second half.”
Pujols hit .323 with 18 home runs and 48 RBIs after the All-Star break.
Pirates: C Roberto Perez, who missed most of the season with a hamstring injury, is expected to be cleared to return to baseball activities on Nov. 4. Perez will be a free agent this winter but has said he wants to return to Pittsburgh.
The first regular-season finale since 2007 between the two longtime division rivals brought 15,319 to PNC Park. The Pirates averaged 15,524 fans in 81 home dates this season, down from 18,412 in 2019, the last full season that did not have COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
St. Louis: will try to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2019, when they reached the NL Championship Series before getting swept by Washington.
Pittsburgh: Start Grapefruit League play on Feb. 25 against Toronto.
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