TEMPE, Ariz. — Albert Pujols stepped inside the netted cage, clawed the dirt with his cleat and eyeballed left-hander Brad Mills, who was about to get rocked.
Pujols exhaled and waited.
Then, everything changed.
With a few magnificent swings, Pujols sent Mills’ pitches screeching into the outfield of Tempe Diablo Stadium and delighted owner Arte Moreno, who is paying the superstar slugger $240 million over the next 10 years, and some spellbound teammates.
“Unbelievable,” right fielder Torii Hunter said in the clubhouse after witnessing Pujols’ session. “His bat was explosive. He said he hadn’t hit outside in a while, but he’s hitting the ball like he’s been hitting it forever. It’s amazing. He’s awesome.”
Pujols hasn’t connected for his first homer with the Angels, and he’s already had a powerful impact on them. After just one week of spring training, the man who helped St. Louis to a World Series title last year has shown his new team why he’s the game’s best hitter.
Pujols has been one of the first players at the team’s complex each morning, arriving shortly after 7 a.m. to begin his regimented day. At least twice he has been the last to leave. On Monday, as the Angels prepared for their first full-squad workout of camp, Pujols tucked away some personal belongings when Hunter walked in.
He immediately wrapped his arms around Pujols, his new next-locker neighbor.
The two had spoken several times since December, when the Angels signed Pujols to the second-largest contract in history. But Hunter hadn’t seen Pujols in two months and perhaps wanted to grab him and make sure it was truly him wearing Angels red.
Hunter, on the eve of his 16th major league season, understands the addition of Pujols will dramatically influence what pitches all the Angels see at the plate.
“It changes the dynamic of the lineup, man,” said the 37-year-old Hunter, one of the majors’ most personable players. “Just him being in there is going to change everything. Not just for me, but for Vernon (Wells), for (Erick) Aybar, for everybody. The pitcher’s game plan has to change with us now because he’s in the lineup.
“Instead of pitching to him, you may have to come to me or you might have to come to Kendrys Morales or (Mark) Trumbo.
“I’m telling you, I’m excited.”
Though not as outwardly enthusiastic as Hunter, Angels manager Mike Scioscia is thrilled to have Pujols around. It hasn’t taken long for the two-time MVP to make a favorable impression on his new boss.
“This guy works very hard,” Scioscia said. “He understands where he needs to be when the season starts in all aspects of the game — the defensive end, running, obviously swinging the bat and he works hard at it.”
But beyond his massive presence in the lineup, Pujols can have a positive effect on the Angels just by being around young, impressionable players on a daily basis. He exudes confidence in everything he does — on and off the field — and Scioscia believes some of it can rub off on the Angels.
“Everybody in that clubhouse is confident,” he said. “But it’s one thing in being confident and another thing having a deeper team that’s going to be able to turn that confidence into some tangible wins. I think we’re a better team now. We have a clubhouse full of guys getting after it — with a dominant piece in the middle of the lineup.”
It won’t all be rosy for the Angels, who are expected to play into October’s last days. Before some high winds from the desert kicked up some dust clouds near the stadium Monday, the club had already withstood a small storm of controversy — for now.
Outfielder Bobby Abreu, who last week said the Angels should trade him if he’s not going to play every day, softened his stance after an early-morning meeting with Scioscia and general manager Jerry Dipoto.
“We talked and they said they would find a way to get me about 400 at-bats, maybe more,” Abreu said. “They said I’m not going to be on the bench for the whole week. That’s fine with me. I just want to be on the field. It doesn’t matter how it’s going to be — in left field, right field, as a DH.
“Just help the team win, and whatever way I can help, I’m going to do it.”
There were reports last week that the Angels were close to trading the 37-year-old Abreu to the New YorkYankees, his team in 2007-08. Abreu’s eyes lit up when he was asked about the possibility of again wearing pinstripes, but he insisted he’s committed to the Angels.
“I’m an Angel right now, I’ve been an Angel for the last three years, four years, and all the fans know the way that I feel, how I play the game,” he said. “I throw everything on the field to try to just win the games, help the team, help the young guys. It’s a business sometimes, and you don’t know where you’re going to be tomorrow. Right now, I’m an Angel.”
It’s going to be impossible for Scioscia to keep everyone happy, the price for having a talent-loaded team transformed by Pujols.
There’s a cost that comes with expectations. Hunter wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I always wanted to be on a team with high expectations,” he said “I didn’t want to be on a team that didn’t have expectations at all. It’s your dream to be on a team like this, where you have a chance to win.”
With Pujols, that chance is heightened.
Notes: INF Mark Trumbo, forced to move from first to third base to accommodate Pujols, will be in Los Angeles on Tuesday to have planned tests on the stress fracture that cut short his rookie season in 2011. … DH Kendry Morales did some agility drills as he continues to recover from a broken ankle that sidelined him all last season. Scioscia thinks Morales will be running the bases within two weeks.