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Before September 26, Albert Pujols had never struck out three times against the same pitcher in the same game. On September 26, it happened.
Baseball is a game that's just littered with outstanding bits of trivia, and new trivia is getting added to the game on an everyday basis. I don't know what single bit of trivia is my favorite, but a particularly neat one is that Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols made their major-league debuts on the same day. On April 2, 2001, Ichiro batted leadoff for the Mariners against the A's. On April 2, 2001, Pujols batted sixth for the Cardinals against the Rockies. Ichiro and Pujols have been among the game's brightest stars ever since, and at one time it was unfathomable that they would ever wear different uniforms. Now Ichiro and Pujols wear different uniforms. Crazy!
Because we spent more than a decade with Ichiro, watching him play in almost every single game, we came to know him as a guy who rarely struck out and who could seemingly make contact with anything. Before last season, the Mariners filmed a commercial about that very thing. Over his entire career, Ichiro has struck out in just 9.4 percent of his plate appearances, which is a very low rate. It's the same rate as Yuniesky Betancourt's rate, but then, strikeouts have never been one of Yuni's many problems.
Albert Pujols, obviously, is amazing, and he always has been. He's been a good defender, he's been a guy who could hit for power, he's been a guy who could draw walks, and he's been a guy who could hit for average. What's allowed Pujols to hit for a high average all these years is that he's also been a tough hitter to strike out. Albert Pujols, for his career, has struck out in just 9.6 percent of his plate appearances. We watched Ichiro for many years. His strikeout rate and Albert Pujols' strikeout rate are not meaningfully different.
So that's a little perspective. The worst strikeout rate Pujols has ever posted came in his rookie season, and it was less than half Jack Cust's best-ever strikeout rate. Pujols hasn't come close to striking out at that rate ever since. It wouldn't be wise to declare him a flawless hitter, but among the entire pool of major-league hitters, Pujols has probably long been the least flawed.
This all brings us to last night, when the Mariners lost to the Angels, but when the thing to talk about wasn't the loss. Prior to last night, Pujols had played some thousands of games, and in just ten of them did he strike out three times. In none of those three-strikeout games did he strike out three times against the same pitcher. There was always at least one reliever involved. The Cardinals and Angels have had a way of getting into bullpens.
Last night was Albert Pujols' 11th career three-strikeout game. It was also the first game in which Pujols struck out three times against the same guy. Pujols struck out swinging against Felix Hernandez in the first. Pujols struck out swinging against Felix Hernandez in the third. Pujols struck out looking against Felix Hernandez in the fifth. Pujols didn't face Felix Hernandez again.
There may eventually be others to strike out Albert Pujols three times in a game, but King Felix will forever have been the first, and for now he makes up a one-man list. This isn't proof of Felix's dominance, but it does add to the bounty of evidence, and it's something we'll be able to reflect upon in the darkest, wettest days of winter. "Remember when Felix Hernandez struck out Albert Pujols three times in the same game?" "Yes. Yes I do." "I am talking to myself." "Winter makes us insane."
Three strikeouts, and Pujols didn't just strike out -- he never looked comfortable. He was completely off balance swinging through a low curve in the first one. He was completely off balance swinging through a low changeup in the second one. In the third one a fastball over the plate caught him completely off guard. You could elect to give some credit here to Miguel Olivo, I suppose, and I won't stop you, but it's Felix who agreed to the pitches, and it's Felix who threw them. It's Albert Pujols who couldn't do a damned thing to them.
Felix struck out Albert Pujols three times, and he made Albert Pujols look silly three times. For his career, Pujols has faced Matt Cain 21 times, and struck out zero times. The Mariners lost last night, they lost in a walk-off, they lost after leading, and thanks to Felix Hernandez, it doesn't really matter. That might be Felix's most special talent of all.