A masterful start by Dan Haren and a much-needed victory over the Indians on Saturday couldn't obscure what has become a major concern for the Angels: Albert Pujols is in a deep funk, one he's shown few signs of breaking out of, and that's putting a serious drag on the offense.
Not only has Pujols not homered in 84 at-bats this season, he hasn't driven in a run in 12 games and is batting .226 with four RBIs. He's been so passive at the plate, taking fastball after fastball for first-pitch strikes, that he seems to have an 0-and-1 count when he's standing in the on-deck circle.
In an effort to get a feel for new pitchers in a new league, the former St. Louis Cardinals star has been taking pitches early in at-bats, but opponents are going right at him, getting ahead with 0-2 and 1-2 counts and putting Pujols on the defensive.
The result: Pujols, in more of a protect than attack mode, has swung at too many pitches out of the strike zone, producing weak contact and more strikeouts. Pujols did single during a scoring rally in the first inning Saturday, but in his third at-bat, he struck out on three pitches, the third a Jeanmar Gomez fastball he watched go right down the middle.
"There's been a little cat-and-mouse game as he's trying to figure out what pitchers are doing," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "There's no doubt that at times he's been a little bit passive in trying to figure things out and gotten into some poor hitting counts. And at times he's expanded his zone and gotten into some poor counts by being too aggressive. He'll figure it out."
That seems to be the kicker to every conversation about Pujols, that he has such a good track record — a career .328 average, .420 on-base percentage and 445 homers entering the season — that he's bound to snap out of his slump in a big way. But he hasn't.
"If he hasn't hit a home run after 300 at-bats, we'll have another conversation," Scioscia said. "But I think he's going to find it."
The Angels hope Mike Trout, called up from triple-A Salt Lake on Friday night, will provide a spark for their stagnant offense, but they're not looking for the dynamic 20-year-old outfielder to be a savior.
"It's a lot to put on a kid to say he'll be a difference-maker right away," Scioscia said. "But eventually he'll be a force at whatever position he plays and wherever he hits in the lineup."
He wasn't Saturday. The speedy Trout started in left field and in the leadoff spot but was hitless in four at-bats, popping out twice, striking out and grounding out. He also made an ambitious and probably ill-advised diving attempt on Michael Brantley's leadoff double down the line in the first inning.
"It was his first game, and he was a little amped up," Scioscia said. "He was excited, but he'll settle into the offensive part as things get going."
One reason the Angels will probably give Trout an extended look in the leadoff spot: Only 54 of their hitters who have led off in 188 innings this season have reached base, a .287 clip that is the worst in the American League. Nineteen of the 54 have scored.