Pujols Returns to Where Hit Parade Began -- Coors Field

By Jack Etkin

Coors Field is where the march to 3,000 hits began for Albert Pujols in 2001. It’s also where he took a swing five years later that still resonates, not for how prodigious it was but for the improbable damage it inflicted on the Rockies and, in particular, Jason Jennings.

The Rockies and Cardinals began the 2001 season on April 2. Pujols, 21, played left field and batted sixth. He had vaulted to the Cardinals after spending the bulk of the 2000 season at the Low Class A level with a brief stop at High Class A and an even briefer one at Triple-A. While Pujols was the talk of Cardinals camp in 2001, the big Rockies news that spring was left-hander Mike Hampton, who was new to the team.

Signed as a free agent to an eight-year, $121 million contract, Hampton made his debut with the Rockies on Opening Day against the Cardinals. Facing Hampton in the seventh inning, Pujols grounded a single into left field for his first major league hit. At the time, the Rockies were ahead 6-0 and on their way to an 8-0 win in which Hampton pitched 8 1/3 innings. He allowed five hits in a 102-pitch, good-as-advertised performance that proved short-lived.

Fast forward to July 25, 2006. Pujols, then entrenched at first base and batting third, was the reigning National League Most Valuable player _ an award he also won in 2008 and 2009 _ a five-time All-Star and winner of three Silver Sluggers.

The Cardinals entered that July game 56-42 with a 4 ½ game lead in the NL Central. The Rockies were 47-52, 4 ½ games behind and in fourth place in the NL West. Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, who was 9-4 with a 2.83 ERA, opposed Jennings, who was 6-8 with a 3.88 ERA. He pitched a complete game four-hitter and lost 1-0 when Pujols hit a two-out homer in the sixth.

It was the first time a Rockies pitcher had thrown a nine-inning complete game in Denver and lost. Curiously, it happened again seven days later when Josh Fogg lost 1-0 to the Brewers and hasn’t happened since.

Jennings, who walked two and struck out four while throwing 69 of 105 pitches for strikes, gave up singles to David Eckstein and So Taguchi to start the game, putting runners on first and third. After Pujols lined to shortstop, Scott Rolen walked to load the bases, but Jennings escaped by getting Juan Encarnacion to ground into a double play.

The Cardinals didn’t have another at-bat with a runner in scoring postion the rest of the game. In fact, they never got a runner past first base the rest of the night, save for Pujols when he trotted around the bases.

Jennings had retired 12 straight batters and 15 of 16 when Pujols came to bat in the sixth. With the count 1-1, Jennings threw a changeup. The pitch didn’t hang and offer Pujols a tantalizing target, quite the contrary.

“I’m kind of known as a sinker-slider guy, but when we are at home, I used my changeup a lot just because you can’t really depend on slider breaks some nights up there,” Jennings said last week. “So it was a 1-1 changeup. It was below the knee and definitely not on the black.

“I was trying to kind of just back-door a changeup, maybe get a rollover ground ball to short. Which most guys maybe would’ve offered at and given me my wish. He decided to do otherwise.”

Pujols lined the ball just over the out-of-town scoreboard in right field. It was Pujols’ 33rd homer of the season _ he finished that year with career-highs in home runs (49) and RBI (137). The ball traveled an estimated 362 feet and barely made it into the stands.

Jennings lives in Frisco, Texas. He owns a baseball facility there called Pastime Training Center, where he gives pitching lessons and coaches several select teams that use the facility as a base. Jennings, 39, vividly remembers that fateful pitch to Pujols.

“I actually use that when I’m doing some lessons,” Jennings said. “We’ll start talking about big league hitters, and my example when I use that game is you can’t really control what goes around you. You pitch, and you do your job. And that day we just happened to not score.”

Jennings was an exceptional hitter for a pitcher. That night against Carpenter, Jennings drove a ball to the track in right field to end the second with runners on first and third. In the first inning, Jamey Carroll led off with a double and was sacrificed to third by Clint Barmes. But third baseman Rolen, sprawling to his left, then snared Garrett Atkins’ grounder and threw Carroll out at home.

Carpenter gave up seven hits _ six singles and Carroll’s double – in 7 1/3 innings and held the Rockies hitless in six at-bats with runners in scoring position. The final two such at-bats came in the ninth with one out and runners on first and second against closer Jason Isringhausen. He struck out Carroll and retired Barmes on a fly to right, sealing Jennings’ bitter loss.

He retired the final eight batters without allowing a ball to leave the infield and finished the game with 12 outs on ground balls and one costly pitch to Pujols he didn’t regret throwing.

“His stance, his swing are so simple and clean,” Jennings said. “He doesn’t get fooled. He just sits there and waits on it, and if he likes it, he’s going to go get it. Maybe he was zoning me away and just looking for something away. But Vlad (Vladimir Guerrero) is about the only other guy I could remember who could hit pitches (that were) not even close to a hittable pitch and do damage with it.

“A 1-1 changeup off the plate below the knees. I still to this day, I don’t even understand how it’s possible. But you know, you get 3,000 hits, you’re probably capable of doing stuff like that.”

Amzingly, Pujols, 38, who is in his seventh year with the Angels after 11 with the Cardinals, has never struck out 100 times in a season. He’s a 10-time All-Star, whose resume also includes six Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves. He is the 32nd player to reach 3,000 hits and with 620 home runs is just the fourth player in the exclusive 3,000/600 circle, joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez. The gaudy bottom line Pujols brings into a two-game series tonight with the Rockies at Coors Field includes 3,002 hits, a .304 average and a .945 OPS.

The Rockies first-round pick and 16th player taken overall in 1999, Jennings ranks fourth all-time in franchise history in wins (58), innings pitched (941) and is tied for fourth in complete games (6) and tied for first in shutouts (3).

Jennings threw three complete games in 2006, the last was on that July night against the Cardinals. It was the second complete game Jennings lost. The first was at Dodger Stadium on May 21, 2003, where the Rockies fell 3-2. Jennings gave up 11 hits, including three doubles and a triple, in eight innings, faced 12 batters with runners in scoring position and stranded 10 runners. It was a gritty 113-pitch effort but nowhere near as dominant an outing as the one Pujols ruined. In his mind’s eye, Jennings still recalls standing on the Coors Field mound in disbelief the instant Pujols parked what Jennings thought was an ideally located changeup.

“I distinctly remember, because it never happened before then and it never happened after that,” Jennings said. “I’m pretty sure I said, ‘You’ve got to be f... kidding me.’ Or something like because I’ve given up a lot of cheapies at this place. But I don’t know if that’s a cheapie or I’m like super impressed that he hit that out. Can’t decide.”

Jack EtkinComment