Angels first baseman Albert Pujols hits a solo home run against the Texas… (Richard W. Rodriguez / MCT )
He is called "The Machine" for his laser-sharp focus, military-like adherence to daily routine and ability to consistently crush baseballs, but back in April and early May the nickname fit Angels slugger Albert Pujols for a different reason:
He was a robot.
Signed to a $240-million contract with an expectation of leading the Angels to the World Series, Pujols was hitting .194 with no home runs and five runs batted in on May 4, putting a drag on a club that had a record of 10-17 and was already 71/2 games back in the American League West.
It was by far the worst slump of a decorated career in which Pujols hit .328 with 445 home runs in 11 years with St. Louis, winning three National League most-valuable-player awards and two World Series titles.
Pujols remained upbeat, though, refusing to acknowledge publicly that his struggles affected his confidence.
"Frustrated?" Pujols said at the time. "I don't use that word."
Nor would he acknowledge feeling pressure to live up to his massive contract.
"You want to talk about the pressure of a new contract, go ask a rookie," Pujols said. "You don't wonder about those things with a guy who has been in baseball 11 seasons."
Questioned about his abysmal statistics, Pujols gave generic responses, such as, "It's not how you start, it's how you finish."
Only now, after a three-month stretch in which he hit .315 with 24 homers and 71 RBIs, Pujols can finally admit that, yes, maybe that contract was a beast of burden.
"I think everyone was pressing, not just myself, but I was the face because I signed the big contract, and I had to show people I was worth every penny," said Pujols, who is hitting .284 with 24 homers, 31 doubles and a team-leading 76 RBIs entering Friday night's game against Seattle at Angel Stadium.
"I was putting pressure on myself. When I decided not to try to do too much, that's when things started to turn. I know I can play this game. You just don't have a lifetime .330 average, 400-plus homers, over 1,300 RBIs and forget all of a sudden how to play."
The depths of Pujols' early struggles were stunning, especially after he tore up spring training with a .383 average and seven homers. But outfielder Torii Hunter, who made a similar career move, signing with the Angels after 15 years in the Minnesota Twins organization, was not too surprised.
"The first six weeks he was trying to figure out the league, the park, this new club, the fans, the media," Hunter said. "It's like anybody in any job. If you transfer, go to another job, you're doing the same thing you were doing, but it's different for you, a different feel, different atmosphere.
"That's what Albert went through the first month. Now he's found his stride. He's comfortable in the clubhouse. He's laughing more, cracking jokes. He's a lot more relaxed than he was the first six weeks."
Pujols snapped out of his funk as rookie Mike Trout made a lightning-quick transition from top prospect to MVP candidate.
The speedy outfielder, promoted from triple A on April 27, leads the AL with a .345 average, 87 runs and 36 stolen bases to go with 20 homers and 60 RBIs.
Pujols has driven in Trout 26 times, and Trout's speed has resulted in more fastballs to Hunter and Pujols, who bat second and third.
"When Trout is on third with less than two outs, all Albert has to do is hit that fly ball, hit that grounder to shortstop or second, and he gets the RBI," Hunter said. "That builds confidence. Trout keeps getting on, Albert keeps getting RBIs."
Since June 1, an Angels club that was shut out eight times through May 14 ranks first in the major leagues in average (.287), runs per game (5.4), slugging (.480) and on-base percentage (.350) and is second in home runs (87).
"Trout brought a lot of energy, the club picked up after he came up, but it wasn't just him," Pujols said. "It seemed like everyone started swinging well. If you want to give Trout credit, go ahead, but I think it was just about time for us to start playing well too and to start winning. It was time for us to click."
A deep rotation and a bullpen that began to pitch far more effectively in early May helped carry a sagging offense to June, but now the roles are reversed. The offense is struggling to prop up a rotation that drops off precipitously after ace Jered Weaver and an injury-plagued bullpen that was torched for 41 hits, including 11 homers, and 32 earned runs in 271/3 innings, taking five losses and blowing four saves on a just-concluded 10-game trip.
Pujols is no longer a concern.
"Though I was struggling in April, I had the experience to know I was going to survive," Pujols said. "You're not going to go five for five every day. If it was like that, I don't think the game would be fun. It keeps you humble every day because sometimes you have to go out there and battle and survive."
Lately, Pujols has thrived. He hit .424 with six homers, including consecutive multiple-homer games against the Texas Rangers, and 13 RBIs last week to earn AL player-of-the-week honors.
The numbers that have been benchmarks throughout his career — .300 average, 30 homers, 100 RBIs — but seemed out of reach in April are within his grasp, though Pujols won't gain a special sense of satisfaction if he reaches them after his horrid start.
"I don't play for numbers," Pujols said. "What would be special would be to raise that championship trophy like I did last year. That's what I play for."