Sunday, May 6, 2012
Albert Pujols era officially begins
By Mark Saxon ESPNLosAngeles.com
ANAHEIM -- Torii Hunter had to think fast.
Albert Pujols was jogging rapidly around the bases after hitting his first home run with the Los Angeles Angels and Hunter, the clubhouse leader, wanted to commemorate it with a prank that would fit the occasion.
The silent treatment had become passé. Hunter wanted to try the empty treatment. He started yelling, "Get off the bench! Get off the bench!"
Albert Pujols ended the longest home run drought of his career with a 390-foot blast over the left-field wall in the Angels' 4-3 victory over the Blue Jays.
All 25 players, manager Mike Scioscia, the coaches and the trainers scrambled to follow Hunter down the steps and into the narrow tunnel that leads to the clubhouse. So, by the time Pujols got back to the helmet rack, there was nobody around to greet him. There was only one direction they could have gone, however.
"He took off running up the tunnel to make sure we gave him a high five," Hunter said.
You can't blame Pujols for needing a little love these days. Stuck in the worst slump of his life, things had become a bit lonely for the best hitter of a generation. Two days earlier, Pujols had begun to hear loud boos from Angels fans frustrated by his painfully unproductive first month. A day before, he had been benched for what Scioscia refers to as a "mental health day."
Suddenly, with one swing, the wait was over. Now, maybe, the weight will be lifted.
Pujols swung at Drew Hutchison's 2-and-2 breaking ball and lifted it just enough to carry it over the left-field fence and into the Angels' bullpen. It wasn't the most majestic home run, just 390 feet, more of a sinking liner, but it may as well have traveled a mile for the impact it could have on a struggling team. After 110 at-bats without a home run, the longest power outage of his career, Pujols had hit No. 446 of his career, but the first that helped the Angels win a game.
The fact it proved to be the decisive blow in the Angels' 4-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday might be only a fraction of that ball's value.
"It's a relief for him. I'm pretty sure it's a relief for us," Hunter said. "We don't have to hear about Albert having a goose egg any more. I'm happy he got this lifted off him. Now, he can go out and just swing and have fun."
It hasn't looked like Pujols was having the greatest time lately. He entered Sunday batting .194 with just five RBIs and he had the lowest OPS among qualified hitters in the American League aside from Erick Aybar and Alexei Ramirez. He had snapped at reporters and grown testy when hitting coach Mickey Hatcher revealed some harmless details of what Pujols said in a closed-door hitters meeting. Well before the Angels took the field for batting practice, Pujols often emerged from the indoor batting cage, drenched in sweat.
Baseball is a difficult game to predict and, maybe, Sunday's home run was an isolated bright spot in a dark year for Pujols and the Angels. But it felt as if a cloud had moved away from this team with one good swing. It didn't hurt that the Angels have their first appreciable momentum, having taken five of seven games on this homestand.
Angels fans' patience apparently lasts 18 home games for newly signed superstars. That's how long it took them to boo the man their team staked its future to in December after signing him to a 10-year, $240 million contract. Even as he hit ground ball after ground ball to the third baseman, they generally had cheered wildly when he was announced. That began to erode Thursday and it broke in the ninth inning of Friday night's 0-for-4 performance.
In 11 seasons in St. Louis, Pujols hadn't heard much booing. Then again, he had never struggled this badly for this long.
"Don't try to blame the fans. If you want to blame someone, blame it on me because I can take it. I'm a big guy," Pujols said. "Don't try to throw our fans in there, because they were really patient and waiting and, today, they got to see what they want to see every night probably."
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Pujols declined to emerge from the Angels' dugout for a curtain call when the 37,548 fans in attendance gave him a standing ovation that spilled into Kendrys Morales' at-bat, but Pujols said he simply wanted to stay focused on the game.
"Obviously, the last couple days I heard some boos out there and it's part of it. I give them all the credit," Pujols said. "I'm not performing the way everyone expected, but I also know it's not only 27 games. You play 162 games. At the end, if you get into the postseason, that's what you play for."
Even with stalwart, sometimes brilliant, starting pitching, the Angels probably aren't going to reach the playoffs if Pujols continues to produce as he did that first month. Then again, virtually nobody expects that to happen. One veteran scout, speaking before the game, said of Pujols, "He's going to make somebody pay."
It could be as simple as the Angels following the example their best player sets. If Pujols has a hot streak in him, this team appears poised to finally take off. If not, there's no telling how many games behind the Texas Rangers they could fall before the All-Star break.
"We're excited to see when he gets locked in what it's like," Scioscia said. "Obviously, right now he's searching for some things, but that's a big hit today and, hopefully, it's a start."
The Pujols era in Anaheim was supposed to begin on April 6. Instead, it began exactly one month later. Late, but maybe not too late.