For Will Smith, that message came from Albert Pujols.
Smith returned the well wishes a month and a half later on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, with his childhood idol now part of his club. The Dodger catcher waited at home plate to congratulate Pujols after the new addition deposited his first home run as a Dodger in a sweep of the Diamondbacks.
“That was special,” said Smith, who also homered in the 3–2 win. “I’ll remember being on base when he hit his first one as a Dodger, getting to high-five him when he touched home plate. I’ll always remember that. It’s pretty cool, pretty surreal. But I look at him as a teammate now, not really as an idol or anything like that. He’s here to help us win a championship this year.”
Manager Dave Roberts could feel a shot of energy injected into the Dodger clubhouse upon Pujols’ arrival on Monday. It was evident in the smiles on his players’ faces, the words of wisdom delivered in the dugout and the wins that suddenly racked up.
The Dodgers, coming off a 2–8 road trip, put the finishing touches Thursday on an 8–1 homestand.
“I’ve been a fan of Albert for quite some time, like many of us have, but to have him and know his production helps our team win is certainly a lot better,” Roberts said.
Pujols, who knocked in a run in each of his first two games as a Dodger and recorded a hit in his lone at-bat off the bench Wednesday, started the scoring Thursday with his two-run homer. It was home run №668 and hit №3,256 for Pujols, moving him past Eddie Murray for sole possession of №13 on the all-time hits list.
“Like I said earlier Monday, coming through here the last 20 years plus, I see the energy this organization has, whether it was with the Cardinals or the Angels,” Pujols said. “It always seemed like these guys were ready to play every day. I’m just glad to be on this side now.”
The first baseman said he doesn’t believe his presence is the reason the Dodgers have suddenly rattled off a string of wins after their struggles earlier this month. He also said he always tries to have fun on the baseball field, and that’s not unique to being in Los Angeles.
Still, the energy appears to be mutual.
“I think Albert would argue he’s more energized by being a Dodger and being around his teammates than he’s infusing into our guys,” Roberts said before the game. “For me personally, we’re getting a lot of the benefit.”
For five innings, Pujols’ home run was the only scoring for either team. The Dodgers went with a bullpen game for the series finale. David Price began the night with two scoreless innings in his first start as a Dodger, followed by Jimmy Nelson and Alex Vesia. Nelson struck out five batters in his two scoreless innings.
The Diamondbacks would answer back in the sixth inning on a two-run home run from Eduardo Escobar to tie the score. On the first pitch of the seventh inning, Smith put the Dodgers back ahead with his fifth home run of the year, giving him his fourth straight game knocking in a run.
Smith said Pujols introduced himself his first day as a Dodger. He told Smith to come to him with any questions he had. That opened up the communication lines immediately for Smith, who watched Pujols work in the cage, feeling like it could make him better.
When Smith told Pujols he grew up watching him play, Pujols joked with Smith to stop — he didn’t want to feel old.
“But it’s great to see the talent,” Pujols said. “He’s pretty special. When he’s hitting in the cage, I keep my eye on him. Yesterday, he was like, ‘What’s going on,’ because I was looking at his swing. But he has a really special swing, and he knows what he wants to do at the plate. He’s really mature. He’s not only worried about his hitting but he’s a heck of a catcher behind the plate.”
Smith’s arm ensured the Dodger lead would stay intact. When Tim Locastro subbed in as pinch-runner in the eighth inning, Smith caught the former Dodger trying to steal second base. It was just the second time in the speedster’s career that he’d been caught stealing.
“I knew him pretty well when he was with us, so when I talk to him I can always hold that over his head,” Smith said.
The defensive play made up for an odd series of blunders in the sixth inning, when Chris Taylor dropped a fly ball, Justin Turner airmailed a throw to first base and Max Muncy was picked off. Earlier this month, those errors might have cost the Dodgers. Back home, it didn’t.
The Dodgers moved to 16–6 at Dodger Stadium this season. They now leave their haven this weekend hoping to keep their mojo alive as their road trip starts in San Francisco against the first-place Giants.
“They’re not a team to take lightly,” Smith said. “We’re going to go in, play our game, keep doing what we’re doing.”
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