ANAHEIM -- There was a loud crack and the ball was suddenly flying low toward the outfield wall, rapidly cutting through the cool, Southern California night air.
Albert Pujols, as he tends to do, raced out of the batter's box, watching it as he chugged, arms pumping, up the line. For a second or two, it looked as if it were out, the agonizing wait over, but the topspin prevailed and the ball pounded off the green padding, maybe six inches from the top of the wall.
There are only 10 days left in April and Pujols still hasn't hit a home run as an Angel. In the grand scheme of things, is it a big deal? No, in the same way that nothing that happens on a baseball field affects property values, ends suffering in the developing world or makes sick people healthy. But around this floundering team, it has become a focal point for a fan base's angst.
More than 200 other players in the major leagues, among them such household names as Brett Pill, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Michael McKenry, have hit a ball over the wall already, but the man who ranks fifth on the active home run list and 37th on the all-time list is still waiting. Pujols has hit 445 home runs, but not one of them has helped the Los Angeles Angels get any closer to their goal.
At 4-9 and, amazingly, seven games out of first place only two weeks into the season, the Angels can only wait. Wait for Pujols to settle into one of his grooves and wait for this maddening stretch to end. After Thursday night's 4-2 loss to the Oakland Athletics in which Pujols smashed three doubles, he says he refuses to get caught up in this talk about a home-run drought.
"I can't wait to hit a home run so you guys can stop talking about it," Pujols said. "I mean, guys, whenever it happens, whether it's going to be tomorrow, a month from now, two months from now, I don't know when it's going to happen. I don't want to go out there and try to hit the ball out of the park."
Perhaps he doth protest too much?
"My job is to go up there and have good at-bats," Pujols said. "I know I have power. I know I can hit the ball from corner to corner. I know all that. But I'm not going to get caught up in thinking, 'Man, I haven't hit a home run.' My job is to make sure that I stay focused and I don't get locked in on whatever you guys are writing and saying, because I know what I can do and I'm going to go out and try and perform every day."
Now, maybe we should take him at his word. Maybe he's not thinking about hitting home runs, but I think if it were me, I'd want to get that first one out of the way, get a whole bunch of people talking about something other than dollars-to-home run ratios.
And if I were a betting man, I'd wager Pujols breaks out of this thing by Sunday, with the Baltimore Orioles in town. The past two nights, he has, once again, looked like Albert Pujols. Two of the balls he hit probably would have left at least half of the stadiums in baseball. This is Pujols' first April playing in a maritime climate, the thick air knocking balls down. The Angels, make no mistake, are thirsting for a little leadership out of their best player. Not somebody to stand up in some meaningless clubhouse meeting, but somebody to lead them out of this morass by doing something spectacular on the field.
"We hit the ball a lot better than a team that only scored two runs tonight and Albert was leading the way," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He looked very comfortable in the box."
Pujols had three of the four hardest-hit balls of the night. Mark Trumbo had the scariest-looking shot, a ball that was hit so hard, it ricocheted violently off the left-field wall and got to Jonny Gomes quickly enough that he held Trumbo to a single.
The Angels still aren't scoring, but they're showing signs of turning a corner, even if they're rounding it wide. They're left searching out these silver linings, because, frankly, when you have a $150 million payroll and big expectations, the only alternative to optimism is despair. They have played four series and lost them all. Each few games that go by seem to ratchet up the pressure just a little bit more, suck a little more oxygen out of the room.
"It's the major leagues. If you can't handle pressure, then you need to go bag groceries or something," said Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson, who has had an easier transition to his new team, though his errant throw pretty much cost the Angels Thursday's game.
"No one in here feels pressure in that regard. We don't really care what anybody says or what you guys write," Wilson said. "We're just trying to play the best baseball we can. When we don't play good baseball we're going to get beat."
Scioscia would love to have you believe these two weeks of agony for the Angels aren't about Pujols. Frankly, Scioscia is paid to have you believe such things, to shield his best players from the expectations and scrutiny that can lead to the type of pressure that chokes off their talents.
"This team's more than Albert; the focus shouldn't be on Albert," Scioscia said.
But this is very much about Albert. It's very much about his 54 at-bats without a home run, if for no other reason than everything about the Angels until about 2022 or so will be about Albert. So for now, everybody waits for what feels inevitable but isn't until it is.