ANAHEIM, Calif. — Albert Pujols ripped a long drive down the left-field line, and the Los Angeles Angels rose in the dugout along with the crowd. The ball sliced through the heavy night air, soaring into the stands — and hooking just a few feet foul outside the yellow pole.
The collective groan in Angel Stadium was audible from the dugout to the back of the bleachers Monday, and it’s getting louder every night.
One month into a lavish contract with a new team, baseball’s most feared slugger has lost his pop.
“I know I can hit home runs,” Pujols said. “When it’s going to happen, I don’t know.”
Pujols didn’t hit a homer for the Angels in April, shockingly going 23 games and 92 at-bats without once doing what he did 445 times over 11 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. Dating back to late last season, the three-time NL MVP and two-time World Series champion is in the longest longball drought of his career, going 29 games and 121 at-bats without a homer.
For a gifted power hitter in the ostensible prime of his career, it’s a distressing stretch of futility even in the earliest stages of his 10-year contract. For the Angels, who are paying $240 million for homers and victories from arguably the best offensive player of his generation, it’s a simmering problem that’s threatening to boil.
“I don’t think about that, man,” Pujols said. “It could be tomorrow, maybe the next day, a month from now, I don’t know. My job is to get myself ready to play and take my swing. … Home runs, when they come, they come in bunches.”
They’re not coming at all in Anaheim, and that’s not what the Angels expected after signing Pujols away from the Cardinals for the next decade with the third-richest contract in major league history. Even worse, Pujols’ new teammates have slumped along with him, and last-place Los Angeles heads into May in an 8-15 funk despite Monday’s 4-3 win over majors-worst Minnesota.
Not even matching the worst start in franchise history has caused the Angels to waver from publicly backing their new first baseman. They still expect to see the sublime power of the man who hit three homers in Game 3 of the World Series last fall, matching a feat only accomplished by Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson.
“Even though he’s a leader and has been around, we’ve still got to lift him up, because the game will slap you in the face sometimes and humble you,” said fellow veteran Torii Hunter, who shared Pujols’ power drought until hitting three homers in the last four games.
Pujols has the highest batting average and slugging percentage of any active player, but he’s hitting .217 with just four RBIs and eight extra-base hits — all doubles, and just one in the last nine games.
Pujols deploys a frustrated smirk whenever he’s asked about his homerless start, saying he has “been in this situation before.” He insists he’s “putting good swings on the ball,” as evidenced by that 350-foot foul ball in the fifth inning Monday night.
“I know what I need to do, and I’m making my adjustment,” Pujols said. “I’ve been doing it for 12 years, so I know my hitting. Only God knows my swing better than me. When you’re going through things like this, you’ve got to be careful who you listen to, because you have so many hitting coaches.”
His actual hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, irked Pujols on Monday night after the slugger learned the coach had shared fairly innocuous details about a pregame team meeting.
“That stuff needs to be private,” Pujols said. “He should have never told the media. What we talked about at the meeting, not disrespecting Mickey, but that stuff should stay behind closed doors.”
If Pujols wants extra coaching, he could get it from fellow players, talk-radio callers, and even fans on the street in Anaheim and Los Angeles, where Pujols’ arrival was heralded by a massive marketing campaign and a sharp spike in ticket sales for the already-popular Angels, who outdrew the Dodgers for the first time last season.
The solutions range from swing adjustments to pressure-relieving mind games to extra days off. Pujols downplays the difficulties of switching leagues and studying the innumerable idiosyncrasies of 13 new pitching staffs, but Hunter acknowledges it’s tough for Pujols.
Even ex-players have theories on Pujols, including Jim Leyritz, the former Yankees and Angels catcher who now hosts an Internet radio show.
“I can tell you that coming over from New York and playing here that first year (in 1997), it was tough to get motivated because the fans weren’t the same,” Leyritz said. “Every at-bat wasn’t the World Series, and it took me a little while to get used to the slower pace. I’m sure that’s what he’s going through right now is that this is a little different pace than it was in St. Louis. It’s different surroundings. It’s going to take some time to adjust. Once he makes that adjustment, the rest of the American League better be careful.”
Angels manager Mike Scioscia has tried numerous changes to his lineup, which ranks 13th out of 14 AL teams with just 80 runs in the Angels’ first 23 games. Scioscia insists Pujols will find his own way out of the slump, even while it deepens.
“He’s got a routine that’s worked for him, he’s committed to it, and there’s nobody working harder to get out of this than Albert,” Scioscia said. “Anyone who plays this game accepts the fact that there are going to be tough times during the season and during a career. But his talent is real, and he’s going to grind it out until he gets to where he needs to be.”
But 247 players have homered this season before Pujols, who led the NL in homers in 2009 and 2010. He hasn’t even had many narrow misses, among them that foul ball and a drive off the top of the left-field fence against Oakland during the Angels’ previous homestand.
Scioscia has no intention of moving Pujols from his No. 3 spot in the lineup. The Angels still have five months left in a season of enormous expectations, and they’re confident Pujols has plenty of time to help fulfill them.
“Pujols, he’s always going to get the nastiest of everything,” Hunter said. “He’s going to get the hardest pitches. The ball is going to move the most. … I know, and everybody else knows, this guy is going to hit. Once he gets that big home run to win a game, it’s over.”