Monday, September 10, 2012
Albert Pujols is back in the groove
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLosAngeles.com
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It was a good night for Albert Pujols. The kind he and the Angels envisioned when he signed with them last December.
Facing Detroit ace Justin Verlander on Saturday, he went 3-for-3 with a double, RBI and two runs scored in a 6-1 win that kept the Angels within striking distance in the American League wild-card race.
It took 111 at-bats for Albert Pujols to connect on his first home run.
Afterward, Pujols walked from the showers to his locker, dressed and chatted with third baseman Alberto Callaspo for a few minutes, making himself available for conversations with reporters.
But the crowd didn't come. Rookie center fielder Mike Trout was holding court after leading off the game with a home run and closing it out by robbing Prince Fielder with a dazzling catch at the wall. He was the story.
Pujols surveyed the scene, took another look around the clubhouse and walked into the back room to eat a late-night meal.
He'd been at the stadium for 11 hours at this point. Always the first to arrive and last to leave. After 12 seasons in the big leagues, his routine is well-worn. The kind of thing you learn to trust in.
After a disastrous first month of the season, Pujols is right back where he's supposed to be: hitting .289 with 29 homers, 94 RBIs, 41 doubles and 150 hits. Thanks to a torrid second half in which he leads the AL with a .662 slugging percentage and is second in the league with 15 homers, he should easily finish with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs yet again.
There's a reason people call him The Machine.
Yet on this good night, he seemed to fade into the background.
An awful first month in which his average dipped as low as .190 and it took 111 at-bats to connect on his first home run felt like a long time ago. But so too did that day in December when the Angels signed him to a staggering 10-year, $240 million contract and introduced him as the new face of their franchise.
Mike Trout has a way of blocking out the sun.
It could bother Pujols. And maybe it should, after the criticism he endured that first month of the season. But somehow he seems to have grown stronger in the shade, seems to have needed some time to work things out.
"It was tough," he said of his slumping start. "Believe me, I didn't want to go through that. But sometimes you have to go through something like that to build yourself to be the best you can be. God has given me that wisdom."
To understand how Pujols resurrected himself after the worst offensive funk of his career, you might want to begin with his faith.
It begins with a faith in God, and a belief that much was given to him and much is expected, too; a conviction that his talent was given to him for a reason. And it continues with a faith in himself and in his talent, with the knowledge that he must constantly hone his abilities and never take them for granted.
The routine he's developed over his career is a reflection of that. He trusts in it. So when things were bad back in April, he put his faith in it.
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Yes, he was pressing. Swinging at balls out of the strike zone, trying to do too much with them, hesitating when he should have attacked, attacking when he should have held back. Instead of driving the ball to all fields, he yanked ground balls to third base -- a classic sign a hitter is pulling off the ball, trying to do too much with it.
And yes, he sometimes bristled at the criticism. But if you go back and look, his message during that time was pretty similar to what he says now.
"It's a long season," Pujols said, with a smile this time around. "And I know what I can do in this game and the God-gifted talent that I have."
He had faith that if he got to the ballpark before everyone else, studied video, took swings in the cage, lifted weights, ran his sprints and did all the other things he's always done before, during and after games, over time things will be as they always have been. The process will work.
"When you struggle early in your career or you struggle early in the season, you learn to be strong," he said. "This game is 90 percent mental.
"You can't let the media play with you. That's something you can't control. That's something I don't get caught up in. I come here every day, get here early, put my uniform on and get ready to play. I don't take that for granted."
Looking back on it now, knowing that he came through it, Pujols can say that going through that first month on his own made him stronger. But in the moment, while he was living through it, being so far away from his wife Deidre and four children, it was a struggle.
"I'm a guy that doesn't like to put any excuses out. It's just baseball. I've done it before," Pujols said. "But it's tough because you have your wife, your best friend who always supports you, and when you struggle you want to have your family around.
"But you still have to stay focused and know what you have to do. When we have a long road trip, you go play 14 games away. So I don't like to make excuses. It was supposed to happen. It was meant to happen. The struggle."
He says it aloud now like he's said it to himself before a thousand times.
During that first month, Pujols was largely alone with his thoughts. He stayed at his agent Dan Lozano's house or in a nearby hotel while the Angels were at home. Deidre and the kids remained in St. Louis.
St. Louis is the only home their family has ever known. Leaving isn't easy, emotionally or logistically. The children are in school, their friends are there, their lives are there.
"It's tough just to pack and leave," Pujols explained. "My kids go to a great school out there. So whenever we think it's the right time, we'll make the move. But we're still going through prayers on it."
And things are complicated by the fact that the Pujols' oldest daughter Bella, whom Albert adopted when she was an infant, has Down syndrome. Taking her away from school and her life brings up a different set of considerations.
"Right now, I look at what's best for my family and my kids, not what's best for myself," Pujols said. "I have a beautiful family and whatever's best for them, whether it's here in California or there in St. Louis or Kansas City [where he and Deidre went to high school], that's where I need to be."
Pujols' family returned to St. Louis in late August after spending most of the summer with him at their new house in Southern California.
There is no statistical correlation between them joining him in California for the summer and his turnaround at the plate. His offensive surge started before they arrived and continued after they left.
It's simpler than that.
Having his family around helped him put roots down. Helped Anaheim feel like home, not just where he now played his home games.
He was already starting to feel more comfortable around his new teammates and within his new organization; this just helped the process.
"I just think he's more comfortable," Angels right fielder Torii Hunter said. "That's the best way to put it. He's more comfortable."
It's hard to say exactly when the separate news conferences stopped. Probably shortly after Pujols finally hit his first home run as an Angel on May 6. In any event, there hasn't been one for a while.
"I'm a guy that doesn't like to put any excuses out. It's just baseball. I've done it before," Pujols said.
He had to answer hundreds of questions over that first month about why he couldn't hit a ball out of the yard. And he had to alter his postgame routine to do it, taking an elevator up three levels from the clubhouse after a game to a news conference.
It made him stick out from the team. Separated him at a time he needed to be bonding. And when things went so poorly, it left him exposed, without his teammates around to absorb some of the blows.
"That first month wasn't what he wanted," second-year outfielder Mark Trumbo said. "But I think he was really good about it. Not overly emotional. He understood the reality of it. He didn't know exactly when or exactly why they're going to turn around, but you have to have that faith they will."
Hunter -- who has been the team's conscience and voice since he set foot in the clubhouse five years ago -- can be a great defender. So can Trumbo and veteran outfielder Vernon Wells, both of whom know the game well enough to contextualize the slump Pujols was fighting through.
"You knew he was going to finish what he started," Hunter said. "That's one thing I've learned: In this game, you are what you are. Your average might fluctuate, but your numbers are still going to be there.
"He knows how to play. He's been around a long time. He knows how to prepare himself and what's going to happen at the end of the season. So when he hears stuff you guys write in April, where you say he's done after two games, nobody is going to listen to that.
"We didn't need to say anything to him because he's been around. Me and the other veterans that are around, we don't get down. We believe in our ability, and at the end of the year, the numbers are going to be what they are. Last year I was hurt, I struggled some, but you look at my numbers and it still was 20-plus [homers] and 80-plus [RBIs]. "
In the end, though, it was Trout who did the most to mitigate the pressure on Pujols. Not by what he said about him, but in what his presence did for the Angels' lineup.
The rookie's impact on baseball is well-documented by now. He has been arguably the best player in baseball this season, and has inarguably been its most exciting.
Everything the kid does sizzles. You can't help but notice him.
Which means at some point everyone started watching Trout and started leaving Pujols alone.
It gave him space. A little room to breathe. To work his way back.
And perhaps most importantly, with Trout on base so often, creating scoring chances and causing havoc on the basepaths, it provided everyone who hit behind him with better pitches to hit.
Since May 15, Pujols' walk rate has gone up from 5 percent to 9 percent, while his chase percentage on balls out of the zone has decreased from 36 percent to 31 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
How much of that is attributable to Trout's presence?
How much is because Pujols trusted in himself and his abilities?
How much is faith? Or family?
It doesn't matter. Albert Pujols got his groove back.
"He's locked in," Trout said. "He's spraying balls all over the park. Every big situation we're in when he's up to bat, he's coming through for us. He's staying within his game and just, you know, being Albert Pujols."