PHOENIX — After making his Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim debut in the team’s spring training opener on Monday afternoon, left-hander C.J. Wilson mentioned that his days with the Texas Rangers gave him a respect for the AL West rival Angels and the “weapons” they had.
And about that new weapon, they added during the offseason?
“You mean that guy with No. 5?” Wilson said with a grin. “He looks OK to me.”
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Whether he is sporting Cardinals red or Angels red, Albert Pujols definitely looks at home on a baseball field, particularly standing at the plate with the bat in his hand. Signed to a 10-year, $240-million free agent contract in the offseason, Pujols made his presence felt quickly in the Angels’ exhibition-opening 9-1 victory against Oakland at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on Monday.
After Erik Aybar and Howie Kendrick led off the game with singles, Pujols yanked a 1-1 pitch from Brad Peacock into the left field corner for a 1-0 Angels lead.
“I look at the other guys in the dugout and they said, ‘That’s Albert,”‘ said Wilson. “You know you can count on him.”
Pujols also singled in the second and then flied to right in the third, coming out of the game after four innings.
“Sure I was nervous,” said Pujols, 32, a nine-time All-Star, three-time NL MVP and two-time Gold Glove winner in 11 seasons with St. Louis. “There are three times every year you get nervous: first at-bat of spring training, first at-bat of the regular season and first at-bat of the postseason. My dad told me if you don’t have that feeling you aren’t ready to play the game.”
Now, it’s not every year Pujols gets to the postseason, but he did make the trip seven times the last 11 years, advancing to the World Series three times and being a part of a world champion a year ago against Texas and in 2006 against Detroit.
Wilson’s encounters with Pujols over the years were limited to two games of the World Series last year.
Pujols didn’t have a hit, but his two outs were a line drive to third and fly ball to center. And then there were three intentional walks and a hit by pitch.
Suffice it to say, Wilson has been aware of Pujols for some time.
“I did draft him on my fantasy league team when I was in the minors,” Wilson said.
Now, they are teammates, the two big offseason free-agent signings of an Angels team that saw its control of the AL West eroded the last two years by Wilson and the Rangers, who are coming off back-to-back AL pennants.
Wilson has his challenges, but the focus is not on him, which he knows.
“I’m still developing,” he said. “I’m working on ways to (cut down on pitch counts) so I can keep with (Angels starters) Ervin (Santana), Dan (Haren) and Jered (Weaver). Those guys work 230 innings every year. I’m not as polished as those guys.”
Pujols is already entrenched as the hitter others strive to be, but it doesn’t keep him from a very regimented approach to his offseason training and his spring training approach; he’s careful to push himself but not to overwork.
“It’s quality time with him,” said Angels outfielder Torii Hunter. “He gets it done. When he’s feeling good it is, ‘OK, I’m out of here.’ Some guys overdo it.”
Pujols does it just right. Check out the stats line — .328 career average, tops among active players; 445 home runs, sixth among active players; and 1,329 RBI, eighth among active players.
And he knows his every move is being watched, not just by the public and media, but his teammates, too. He, after all, hasn’t forgotten what it was like for him in those early years with St. Louis when he benefited from an environment created by the likes of pitchers Woody Williams and Matt Morris, infielders Edgar Renteria, Fernando Vina and Placido Polanco, much less Mark McGwire.
“They were the ones I learned from, and then 11 years later, I was the only guy left in the clubhouse from that first year,” said Pujols. “Then it was my turn to pass things along. The game doesn’t change. You have a responsibility to the (young players).
“Sooner or later I will be gone, like those guys from ’01, and someone will hopefully look back and talk about what I did to help them.”
Right now, though, what the Angels are focused on is the help that they will get from Pujols in the No. 3 slot in their batting order. While their pitching staff led the AL with a 3.57 earned-run average, the offense scored only 667 runs, 10th in the NL — 188 fewer than the AL-pennant-winning Rangers and 208 fewer than Boston, which led the AL.
That’s why the idea of adding Pujols — along with the anticipated return of Kendrys Morales from a broken ankle to hit cleanup behind Pujols — has created such a stir in Anaheim.
It all begins in Arizona, with an attention to detail.
“You make sure you get your work in,” said Pujols. “What you do in practice is what you take into the game.”
It’s one of the lessons that Pujols learned as a rookie, and one of the lessons he is adamant about passing on to the next big-league generation.