There was a moment early in Albert Pujols' confounding homerless streak this season when he actually thought it was funny -- as in funny "ha ha," not funny "strange" -- that someone asked if perhaps he, the Great Pujols, was concerned about suddenly being unable to hit the ball over the fence. Or get any hits at all, really.
"You really think I worry over home runs?" Pujols scoffed to a Los Angeles Times reporter on April 18 -- or 18 days before he finally broke through with his first homer.
He hit his second only Wednesday night. His batting average is barely peeking over .200 (he was at .213 through Wednesday), and now the same people who bought in to the preseason predictions that the Angels might win 100 games and dance on the graves of the Texas Rangers because they added Pujols and C.J. Wilson … those people are now slapping their foreheads and saying, "Pujols has nine seasons left on his $240 million contract after this?"
As the baseball season reaches the quarter pole this week, Pujols' struggles beg some questions as old as baseball itself, as do the impressive start of Japanese import Yu Darvish and the promising splashdown of 19-year-old Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, the perceptible fade in Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira's batting average and Joe Mauer's continued lack of power numbers for the Twins.
At what point does a "slump" that a player or team is going through metastasize into an irredeemable shipwreck of a season or proof of some irreversible decline or flaw?
Why is it that even the language of the game -- not just pitch counts -- seems designed to coddle pitchers?
Have you ever noticed that hitters are said to be "mired" in "slumps," which sounds almost terminal? But pitchers are said to merely "struggle" -- which sounds more like a misdemeanor or something you lightly say with wind chimes tinkling softly in the background.
Many hitters in a disastrous slump will talk freely about how they feel they'll never get a hit again.
But pitchers who stink comprehensively quite often remain comfortably ensconced in a colossal state of denial. They all just seem hard-wired to say that successful batters "hit a good pitch." Many of them will go a step further and add that as soon as they hit their spots again, their pitches will rarely be hit at all.
Just the other day, 49-year-old Colorado left-hander Jamie Moyer accused Chipper Jones of stealing signs from his catcher while on second base during a 13-9 Braves win, an accusation that prompted an incensed Jones to jaw at Moyer on the field, then fire back after the game, "I didn't see any 'signs' on the 900-foot home runs that were hit." Moyer never conceded the possibility that his 78 mph Pony League fastballs might've deserved the blame.
Big-ticket free agent Heath Bell has already lost and regained his closer's job with the slow-starting Miami Marlins and claims to be no worse for the wear. Angels ace Jered Weaver (who already has a no-hitter) and White Sox starter Jake Peavy (4-1, with a 2.65 ERA) have had strong seasons before. But are rookies Lance Lynn of the Cardinals or Drew Smyly of the Tigers the real things?
And Josh Beckett, the tarnished former ace of the Red Sox … what do you make of him? Beckett has been speaking to reporters in sort of angry haiku ever since he was scratched from a May start because of a sore latissimus dorsi muscle and went golfing the next day anyway, only to make his next start and find that a lot of folks noticed this:
This is a latissimus dorsi.
And this is Beckett's latissimus dorsi on golf.
"None, none," Beckett seethed at reporters, in a tone very similar to how he insisted those clubhouse beer-and-chicken potlucks that he and some other Red Sox players enjoyed last season had nothing to do with how they personally cratered during Boston's spiral out of the playoff race. Thus there was no need to apologize. Beckett has instead promised to devote himself to finding the "snitch" in the Sox clubhouse, and I think all can agree with me now when I say, "Godspeed, good man! But as long as you're in a sleuthing mood, you might want to look up the definition of 'tone deaf.'"
The Red Sox have yet to fully recover from last year's collapse despite changing their manager, general manager, closer and half of their starting infield. There is now talk of trading away broken-down Kevin Youkilis, too, to make way for young Will Middlebrooks. But can you really count on Middlebrooks, who has played a total of 12 major league games, continuing his .300 hitting? And anyway, can you do that to Youk, who is engaged to Tom Brady's sister, without inviting another 86-year curse?
The financially strapped Mets saw the end in sight for 35-year-old Carlos Beltran and gave up on him, and now he looks like the bargain pickup of the offseason for defending champion St. Louis. Funny/strange, right? Go figure.
Darvish, who has signed to take Wilson's place in the Rangers' rotation, has shown signs that he could be the same ace here that he was in his native Japan. No loss in translation.
But is 19-year-old Harper the big league-ready sensation he seemed to be his first week in the majors, when he stroked a game-winning hit and later responded to Cole Hamels' intentionally drilling him in the back by coming around to make a daring steal of home on Hamels' routine toss to hold a runner on first base?
Or is Harper a kid who needs more Triple-A seasoning even if injuries have left the Nats woefully short-handed and wondering whether they have enough to contend even with their great starting pitching? The other day, he opened up a 10-stitch cut over his left eye when he slammed his bat off the wall in frustration after making an out.
There are zero remaining ability-related questions about the Rangers' Hamilton or the Dodgers' Kemp, except how high their numbers may go.
Greatness for them is the new "normal."
Before suffering a slight hamstring strain last weekend and going on the DL, Kemp had one of the great Aprils in big league history, and he was talking boldly of not only keeping the Dodgers in first place but also of how he believes individual goals like a 50-homer/50-steal season are possible for him.
The Hall of Fame asked Hamilton for the bat he used to smash a record-tying four home runs in a game. But Hamilton -- who is hitting .404 with 18 homers and 45 RBIs -- wasn't ready to surrender it until it suffered a slight crack on Sunday when he stroked an RBI single in a win over the Angels, the capstone of his incredible run of nine home runs and 18 RBIs in seven days.
Rather than lament the loss of his magical bat, Hamilton looked at the bright side.
"She died a hero," he joked.
Now, to paraphrase Pujols, you don't think Hamilton is worried that something like a broken bat might interrupt the tear he's on, do you?
"I really haven't thought about it; it really hasn't been different for me," Hamilton said.
No wonder Brandon McCarthy of the A's took to Twitter over the weekend and jokingly asked the know-it-all iPhone 4 answer girl a question:
"Siri, how do you get Josh Hamilton out?"
That's likely to remain the burning question in baseball over the final three-quarters of the 2012 season, especially if Hamilton stays in position to win the Triple Crown.
If you're a pitcher, you actually might not mind seeing Pujols coming to the plate right now.
But Hamilton or Kemp?