Albert Pujols's superstar talent was apparent to Marty Kilgore, his coach at Maple Woods Community College, from Day One. "He hit a grand slam and made an unassisted triple play in his first game," Kilgore told Dave George in 2002.
The first 10 years of Pujols's career followed the same pattern. He rocketed through St. Louis's farm system and rose to Triple-A at age 20. He hit eight home runs in April 2001, his first month in the major leagues. He was a unanimous Rookie of the Year, the first rookie since Mike Piazza in 1993 to hit at least .300 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI, and the seventh to accomplish the feat since 1901.
And Pujols just kept finding new ways to impress. A batting title at 23. MVP at 25. Back-to-back MVPs at 28 and 29. A second World Series title and a three-homer game in the 2011 Fall Classic at 31. And along the way, 10 All-Star appearances, three years as the league leader in OPS, five Silver Slugger awards, and two Gold Gloves.
That's what made Pujols's first two years with the Angels, particularly last season, so shocking. We had never seen Pujols fail before. In each of his first two seasons as an Angel, Pujols set career lows in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and home runs. By the end of 2013, Pujols looked a shell of himself, visibly pained by swinging, running and fielding. He played in just 99 games in 2013, a career low by 44 games, as knee troubles and plantar fasciitis became too much to play through.
Tuesday night, Pujols hit his 500th home run, a blast well beyond the deep power alley in left center field at Nationals Park in Washington.
Before the shot cleared the fence, we already knew Pujols was great. More important than reaching that round number, though, was how he's looked as got there.
The milestone home run was Pujols's second of the night, his fourth in the past week and his MLB-best eighth of the season. After Tuesday's two-homer, five-RBI performance, Pujols is now hitting .274 with a .337 on-base percentage and a .619 slugging percentage, all improvements over his brutal 2013 season. If you listen to Pujols himself, he is as healthy as he has been in years, over the knee and foot injuries that hampered him throughout the past few seasons. The way he's playing, of course, speaks even louder.
Albert Pujols's 500th home run was magical not just as the capstone of a career. As he begins his quest for 600 and beyond, Pujols is playing as well as he ever has in an Angels uniform. Now, after two rare years of failure, the question for Pujols can shift away from his steep decline and back to the lofty heights he can reach going forward.