(Eds: Updates with quotes, details. With AP Photos.)By GREG BEACHAMAP Sports Writer
Albert Pujols has hit soaring fly balls that died on the warning track. He has hit several liners deep into the gaps, and he produced a sizzling drive that barely caught the top of the left-field wall.
Yet during his 16 games with the Los Angeles Angels, the $240 million slugger still hasn’t cleared a fence after doing it 445 times for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Article continues below ...
While relaxing in front of his new locker at Angel Stadium, Pujols acknowledges that a homerless start to his AL career is both frustrating and amusing to a slugger who has never been contained by any park for very long.
”Whenever it happens, whether it’s going to be tomorrow or a month from now or two months from now, I don’t know when, it’s going to happen,” 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 think about getting caught up and saying, `Man, I haven’t hit a home run.’ … I have, what, 445 for a reason.”
Pujols’ debut with the Angels hasn’t met lofty expectations after just 65 at-bats, but the second-longest homerless drought of his career is only one reason the Angels’ high-priced roster is off to a perplexing start. Los Angeles is 6-10 after losing Sunday’s finale of a seven-game homestand.
Cleanup hitter Torii Hunter is also homerless. The vaunted starting rotation has stumbled. The bullpen has been terrible.
The Angels’ struggles have even turned comical: Erick Aybar, their Gold Glove shortstop, made two errors on the same day he signed his new $35 million contract and received his Gold Glove trophy.
It’s adding up to a distressing start to a season of enormous expectations. Sure, it’s only April – but even the Angels are getting a bit anxious for consistent success.
”Would we rather have a better record at this point? Absolutely,” said manager Mike Scioscia, who has tried 14 different lineups. ”There’s a mild frustration with some guys because they know we wanted to get off to a good start, and we’re not there right now. But the talent in this team is real, and it will come to the forefront, and when that starts to happen, I think you’ll see a lot of guys start relaxing and getting into their game.”
Sunday’s loss to Baltimore left the Angels already seven games behind two-time AL champion Texas in the AL West standings. Los Angeles has never overcome a deficit of that size to win its division, although the Angels rallied from a larger deficit to win the wild card and the World Series in 2002.
Pujols went 0 for 11 in the Angels’ weekend series with the Baltimore Orioles, extending his longest homerless drought to start a season. The three-time NL MVP insists he’s ”having good at-bats,” and he was outstanding in a three-double game against Oakland last Thursday, yet he’s still batting only .246 with four RBIs.
”For Albert, this is totally different,” Hunter said. ”He doesn’t know any of the pitchers. I’m his scouting report. But when he figures it out, there’s going to be trouble. This guy is good, man.”
Outfielders Peter Bourjos and Vernon Wells are off to slow starts along with Hunter, while Mark Trumbo has been consistently sharp – but can’t get on the field regularly because he still hasn’t mastered third base after Pujols uprooted him from first.
Yet Los Angeles might be getting away with its offensive slump if its rotation was living up to expectations.
Ace Jered Weaver has been mostly sharp, and new left-hander C.J. Wilson is a solid 2-1. But three-time All-Star Dan Haren is winless in four starts, while Ervin Santana is 0-3 before he takes the mound in St. Petersburg on Tuesday when Los Angeles opens a six-game trip against the Rays.
”I’m not very concerned,” Weaver said. ”These games are meaningful, but it is early in the season, and any team that has guys who aren’t used to playing together, sometimes they have to work on things. I think that’s what’s going on here. We haven’t been able to get everything going on all cylinders yet, but we have a lot of talent in this room and in the lineup Sosh puts out there every night, and I think it’s just a matter of time before we get things rolling.”
The rotation’s struggles haven’t been entirely their fault: The Angels’ bullpen already has blown four saves, tied with Toronto for the most in the majors.
The relievers’ rough season includes Sunday, when reliever Scott Downs blew a one-run lead after Haren got within five outs of a shutout. LaTroy Hawkins then lost it in the 10th after a short appearance by Jordan Walden, the All-Star closer who still doesn’t have a save.
The Angels’ veterans still are annoyed, but not worried. Pujols is fitting in splendidly in his new clubhouse, and everybody realizes October is still more than five months away.
That’s plenty of time for Pujols and Hunter to start clearing some fences.
”Those guys have pretty good track records, and their numbers are usually there at the end of the year,” Weaver said. ”I mean, we’re only 16 games into it. These guys are good at what they do, and it’s just a matter of time before we start getting this thing rolling.”