Rays won’t underestimate struggling Angels

The Albert Pujols Power Show has been a conspicuous no-show this season — and the same holds true for his new team, the slumping Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

But that doesn’t mean the Rays can rest any easier with a three-game series starting Tuesday night at 7:10 inside the Trop.

The fact that the three-time NL MVP with 445 career homers at age 32 hasn’t hit a single one so far for the Angels is a double-edged sword. The Rays are delighted that Pujols comes to town on a cold streak, but they are highly aware that he could break out of it any moment – and they’d prefer it not be against them.

So far, Pujols hasn’t come close to delivering on his 10-year, $240 million contract. He’s batting just .246, well below his career average of .328, and seems to be pressing increasingly at the plate in search of his first dinger with Los Angeles. The Angels appear to be going through much the same experience, unable to find their groove after an avalanche of offseason hype from the mega-signing of Pujols and the $77 million, five-year deal given free agent pitcher C.J. Wilson of Rangers fame.

L.A. is in last place in the AL West with a record of 6-10, far from challenging first-place Texas for division supremacy.

“Yeah, it’s frustrating. Yeah, it’s rough, but that’s why you play 162 games,” Pujols told reporters last week after a 4-2 loss to Oakland, a game in which he missed his first homer by inches. “We can get a good streak going and forget about what happened in April. There’s things that you wish would have gone better, but there’s nothing you can do. To be a championship ball club, you have to go through some tough times. We have good talent and quality players here. We know that things could be better, but they’re not, and it’s not because we’re not trying.”

The Rays, meanwhile, roll into the series having won four of five games to raise their record to 9-7, at worst a game out of first place depending on the Monday night outcomes of the Yankees-Texas and Toronto-Kansas City games.

The job of keeping the pace going – while keeping Pujols and the Angels at bay – falls Tuesday to David Price. In his last start, the lanky lefty earned his second win (2-1, 4.20) but still hasn’t pitched with the consistency that marked his career season of 2010 when he finished as an Cy Young finalist. Price went 5.2 innings, allowing eight hits, but he left in the fifth having thrown 106 pitches.

Against the Angels, Price has posted a career mark of 2-2 with a 4.37 ERA in six starts. The Angels counter with right-hander Ervin Santana, who brings an 0-3 record and a 6.75 ERA into the game. Wednesday night’s 7:10 matchup pits Jeremy Hellickson  (2-0, 3.26) against Wilson (2-1, 2.37), and the series concludes Thursday with a 1:10 p.m. contest featuring Matt Moore (0-1, 5.12) vs. Jerome Williams (1-1, 7.71).

The Rays and Angels have played each other closely in recent years, though Los Angeles holds a 78-49 edge all-time. Last year, they split the season series 4-4, with the Angels winning four of five at the Trop and Tampa Bay sweeping three in Anaheim. In 2010, the Rays won five of nine meetings.

Then there’s Pujols, poised to play for the first time in the Trop (he wasn’t in the lineup last July during a three-game series in Tampa Bay due to a forearm injury).

“He’s one of those guys that can have no home runs right now, and end the season with 50,” James Shields told reporters. “You can’t take him lightly, that’s for sure.”

Five pitchers with the Rays know that from first-hand experience. Burke Badenhop has faced Pujols in four at-bats, yielding two hits: a double and a homer. J.P. Howell’s line: two at-bats, one hit – a homer; Joel Peralta: seven at-bats, three hits – including a double and homer; Fernando Rodney: four at-bats with two hits, one of them a double; and Kyle Farnsworth: 21 at-bats, eight hits, four homers. If you add that up, Pujols’ career mark against pitchers now with the Rays: 16 for 38 (.421) with eight homers and three doubles. Ouch.

The series once again reunites Rays manager Joe Maddon with his longtime organization and his former skipper, Mike Scioscia. Despite the tough start, Scioscia sounded an upbeat note several days ago to the media.

“We’re going to turn it around, there’s no doubt,” he said. “These guys are talented. You want to do it sooner than later.”

The Rays would much prefer the latter.

More power to them?

Could Hideki Matsui be on deck for the Rays? According to Jack Curry of the YES Network, 37-year-old designated hitter/outfielder Hideki Matsui may soon sign a minor league contract with the Rays. Matsui played seven seasons with the Yankees (2003-09), spent 2010 with the Angels and last season with Oakland. The left-handed hitter has a career batting average of .285 with 173 homers, 248 doubles and 753 RBI and, as a Yankee, was the World Series MVP in 2009. Last year, he batted .251 with the A’s and hit 12 homers, though his batting average in the second half was .295.

Matsui, who’ll turn 38 in June, was reportedly one of the DH candidates the Rays considered prior to signing Luke Scott. How he would fit into the Rays’ lineup now is unclear, since he’s a left-handed DH like Scott. But the move could be intriguing given Matsui’s history as a solid hitter with power, despite the fact he can no longer play the field. If the move happens, Matsui likely would report to Port Charlotte for extended spring training to be evaluated before being elevated to the active roster.