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Almost invisibly, Albert Pujols has become The Man for Angels

He may not like 'El Hombre' nickname, but Albert Pujols has quietly rebounded from April slump to post Pujols-like stats and help make Angels playoff contenders.

September 09, 2012|By Bill Shaikin, Los Angeles Times

Arte Moreno invested a quarter-billion dollars into Albert Pujols for his powers, and his superpowers. Pujols could hit the ball far, really far. He could lift a team onto his shoulders and into the playoffs. He could better the lives of children in the United States and in the Dominican Republic.

Who knew Pujols could turn into an invisible man?

Think about it. The greatest hitter of our generation has been remarkably absent from the national baseball conversation.

Pujols commanded the American spotlight for abandoning the St. Louis Cardinals in free agency. He got a few headlines when the Angels plastered Southern California with billboards with his picture and "El Hombre" — The Man — a nickname Pujols thought better left in English, with Stan Musial.

He got plenty of attention when it took him more than a month to hit his first home run in Anaheim, and to get his batting average above the Mendoza Line for good.

By then, the wonder boy was here. Mike Trout had arrived to save the season, cure cancer and end global warming.

Trout this, Trout that, and some guy wearing No. 5 at first base. Nationally? Stephen Strasburg shutdown, Boston Red Sox meltdown, and double down on Felix Hernandez.

Truth is, Pujols has been the Angels' best player in the second half. The Angels might be built on pitching, but they lead the major leagues in runs scored since the All-Star break.

"No way our offense jumps up to where it has without Albert," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. "I don't think anybody in here is underestimating what Albert has done."

Trout did save the Angels' season, and he should be a unanimous selection as rookie of the year, a contender for most valuable player. However, Pujols led the American League with nine home runs in August and posted an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.027. Trout had an .855 OPS.

Entering the weekend, Pujols' 1.014 OPS in the second half ranked third in the league, behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder of the Detroit Tigers. Pujols was batting .285 overall and ranked among league leaders with 29 home runs, 40 doubles and 93 runs batted in . No one had more extra-base hits.

This is what Pujols had in mind in April when he said he would not panic even as Angels fans did, when he said his numbers would be there in the end.

"This is not about my numbers," Pujols said. "It's about trying to get to the playoffs."

It is impossible to say if he is frustrated or amused that all the attention has remained on Trout, since Pujols won't say.

"You're trying to make this about me," Pujols said. "It's not about me, buddy. It's about our club. That's how everybody thinks here. We're not a selfish ballclub."

Tim Mead, the Angels' vice president of communications, said he believes Trout gets more attention now in part because the media already chronicled Pujols in the spring. Angels outfielder Torii Hunter offered another theory why Pujols' failings in April might have generated more attention than his successes in August.

"Negative news is the best news," Hunter said. "Whether it's TMZ or anything else, people like that. No one wants to hear a good story."

This would be a good story: Pujols hitting the Angels back into the playoffs for the first time in three years. At his price, and at the price of the Angels' payroll, anything less would be unacceptable.

"This is my job," Pujols said. "This is what I have pledged to do. This is what I am going to continue to do, whether it's here or anywhere else. It's going to be here for the next 10 years, hopefully longer than that."

Moreno might not want to look that far into the future, at least not right now, even if he did sign Pujols to a 10-year contract.

The overall numbers are good, but not greatest-hitter-of-our-generation good. The trends are not good either. Moreno guaranteed Pujols 10 years at a time his batting average, home runs and OPS had gone down in three consecutive seasons; each has gone down again this season. For the first time since 2001 — his rookie season — Pujols will finish with more strikeouts than walks.

Yet a 10-year commitment was the price of signing him, and Moreno decided signing him was the key to renewing the vitality of the franchise on and off the field.

The Angels have their worries right now, but the 2020 season is not one of them. They're worried about getting into the playoffs this season, with a first baseman whose bat is speaking fairly loudly at the moment.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillShaikin

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