Weight lifted for Pujols, Angels after home run
ANAHEIM, Calif. – Maybe the home run he hit Sunday afternoon didn't have much meaning to Albert Pujols. But to everyone else, it felt as if a corner was turned.
No more waiting, no more impatience, no more counting homerless at-bats. For the first time this season, the Angels can get on with business.
Not that they haven't, but Pujols' puzzling slump – punctuated by the longest streak of his career without a home run – has hung over them like a Southern California haze. At least that part of it is over.
When Pujols went deep in the fifth inning and ultimately provided the Angels with the deciding runs in a 4-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, it finally seemed as if all was right with their world. After 28 games and 110 at-bats without a homer, his drought – and Angels' fans impatience – was over.
"It's a relief for him, it's a relief for us," teammate Torii Hunter said. "We don't gotta hear about Albert having a goose egg no more. I'm happy that he got this lifted off of him and now he can just go out there and swing and have fun."
It is not Pujols' nature to celebrate such achievements – after all, he has hit 445 before Sunday's shot into the Angels bullpen in left field – but at least his teammate had some fun. When he touched home plate and ran back to the dugout, it was empty, everyone having disappeared down the steps and toward the tunnel leading to the clubhouse.
A little prank can be a good thing, especially for a team that has taken its lumps after one month of the season. The Angels are still in last place in the American League West, but they salvaged a split of the four-game series with the Blue Jays, finished the homestand with a 5-2 record and hit the road with some momentum.
They'll need to sustain their good feelings if they hope to shave some games off the Texas Rangers' 6½-game lead in the AL West. After a three-game trip to Minnesota that starts Monday, the Angels meet the Rangers three times beginning Friday in Arlington, Texas.
By the time they return home next week, they have a reasonable idea how they measure up to the division's best team.
As they packed and departed for the airport, however, there were concerns regarding relief pitchers Scott Downs and LaTroy Hawkins, both of whom were injured on strange plays in the ninth inning.
Downs came down awkwardly on his left knee while avoiding a shot off the bat of JP Arencibia. He left the game, Hawkins came in, and the next batter, Omar Vizquel, lined a ball that Hawkins snared to start a game-ending double play. But Hawkins hurt his pinky finger, according to manager Mike Scioscia, and will undergo an X-ray to determine the extent of any injury.
In the meantime, the Angels at least know that their best hitter no longer has the pressure to knock one out of the park. But that doesn't mean Pujols' problems are over. They're not.
He's still hitting just .196, and he was a mere 3 for 24 on the homestand (.125). So to say his troubles are completely over would be wrong.
He heard boos from the Angel Stadium crowd Friday night, and he heard more after Toronto starter Drew Hutchison struck him out in the fourth inning with a runner in scoring position and no one out.
"I don't care about that," he said of the fans' reaction. "I said it the other day, if I can boo myself, I'd do it. But I know myself better than that because when you get 600 at-bats, at the end, everybody is right where they want to be, in the playoffs."
That's still the goal. The Angels won't get there without Pujols, and they know it. But at least they no longer have to wonder when his power outage will end.
"As happy as Albert is to break through with that first one, I think he's happier that he contributed to a win," Scioscia said. "We need his production, and hopefully he'll break through and swing the bat to his capabilities."
Scioscia dismissed the notion that Saturday's forced day off helped. So did Pujols. The Angels would rather have his bat in the lineup than not, but if he isn't producing the way he's supposed to, he's not doing the team any good. An occasional day off might be a good thing.
At the very least, resting Pujols for one night spared him the indignity of being booed by his hometown fans. It probably never happened in St. Louis, but a guy getting paid $240 million for the next 10 years knows it's a possibility when he's not hitting.
Still, he doesn't have to like it.
"Can we change the subject?" he finally said when the topic of booing was broached again. "That's in the past now. I said the other night, they're going to cheer more than they're going to boo. Don't try to blame it on the fans. If you want to blame it on somebody, blame it on me. I'm a big guy."
A big guy with big responsibilities.