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Pujols' main focus as he nears 3K hits? Winning

MLB.com @mi_guardado

ANAHEIM -- Above the center-field bleachers stands a billboard bearing a photo of him mid-swing, alongside a career hit total that is progressively inching toward another illustrious round number. Every time he adds to the sum at a home game, Angel Stadium employees get to work rearranging the placards to display the updated total in real time. When the Angels return to Orange County to host the Yankees on Friday night, the billboard will read 2,994.

His likeness is also featured on an advertisement along the right-field wall announcing a future promotional giveaway, a commemorative bobblehead in honor of his impending milestone.

ANAHEIM -- Above the center-field bleachers stands a billboard bearing a photo of him mid-swing, alongside a career hit total that is progressively inching toward another illustrious round number. Every time he adds to the sum at a home game, Angel Stadium employees get to work rearranging the placards to display the updated total in real time. When the Angels return to Orange County to host the Yankees on Friday night, the billboard will read 2,994.

His likeness is also featured on an advertisement along the right-field wall announcing a future promotional giveaway, a commemorative bobblehead in honor of his impending milestone.

"... COMING SOON," the banner promises.

So yes, Albert Pujols is aware that he's closing in on 3,000 hits. The signs are, quite literally, everywhere.

"Everybody is anxious about it," Pujols said. "But I'm going to tell you the truth. I really don't think about it. It's going to happen somehow this year, so whether it's this week coming up or next week, or whenever it happens, I'll deal with it. Right now, I'm pretty good at blocking everything, all the distractions. Because at the end of the day, it's not about my numbers, it's about helping this organization. It's about helping this ballclub to win, and that's my main goal every day.

"When it does happen, then I think everybody will have a celebration, including myself, but I try not to really think about it. It's hard not to think about it, because you have a number out there. Every time you get a base hit, they drop the count. But I really block all that stuff."

By now, the 38-year-old Pujols is well-versed in the art of deflecting questions about his impressive personal achievements. He's been doing it since 2014, when he homered twice in a game against the Nationals in Washington to reach the 500-homer plateau. The clubs have grown only more prestigious since then. Last June, Pujols crushed a grand slam off the Twins' Ervin Santana, his former teammate, to become the ninth Major Leaguer to hit 600 home runs.

Video: Must C Classic: Pujols crushes his 600th career homer

With six more hits, Pujols will become the 32nd player to reach 3,000 and only the second Dominican-born player to accomplish the feat, after Adrian Beltre. The only other players with 600 home runs and 3,000 hits? Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez.

Pujols' 619 career home runs rank seventh all time, and he should surpass Ken Griffey Jr. (630) for sixth place in the near future. He is 68 RBIs away from joining Aaron, Babe Ruth and Rodriguez as the only players with 2,000 or more.

"I have reached really good milestones being here over the last seven years," said Pujols, who will receive a $3 million bonus for reaching 3,000 hits. "But it's the same way for me. I think I'm going to have plenty of time after my career is over to look back. As of right now, I'm really focused on trying to help this ballclub to win, and that's the main thing."

Though Pujols has always stressed team success over his own, he's keenly aware of the rare summits he continues to climb within the game.

"He does not chase numbers, he chases winning," said Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who managed Pujols for his entire 11-year tenure with the Cardinals. "But he's aware because he's a very smart guy and he's aware of baseball history. So as he gets closer to 500, 600, 3,000, a magical mark, it has its proper place in his heart.

"The way he does it, like when he got close to 500 home runs, he insists on go-getting it. Some guys get all distracted and get tight. He just gets on his sprint."

La Russa, now with the Red Sox as a vice president and special assistant to president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, clearly remembers the Spring Training that set Pujols' Hall of Fame career into motion 17 years ago. A 13th-round Draft pick out of Maple Woods Community College in 1999, Pujols played only one full season in the Minors at Class A Peoria before earning his first invitation to big league camp with the Cards in 2001. It didn't take long for Pujols, then 21 years old, to make an impression.

"The way we ran our camp, we always mingled our real promising young hitters with our veterans," La Russa said. "That time we had, like, [Jim] Edmonds, [Mark] McGwire. We would rotate so they could see what a professional hitter looked like when we did our drills. If you walked around, you could never tell that Albert was a rookie in that group. He was executing exactly like those guys that had a bunch of productive years in the Major Leagues."

The rest is now etched in baseball lore. After starting left fielder Bobby Bonilla pulled a hamstring, Pujols made the team and authored one of the greatest rookie seasons ever, hitting .329 with a 1.013 OPS, 37 homers and 130 RBIs. Over the next decade, Pujols became the most feared slugger of his generation, batting .328 with a 1.037 OPS, averaging 40 home runs and 121 RBIs and capturing three National League Most Valuable Player Awards and two World Series titles with St. Louis.

"Lucky, lucky Cardinal break that we had him for 11 years," La Russa said.

Angels infielder Zack Cozart was a rookie with the Reds in 2011, Pujols' final season with the Cardinals. He played a handful of games against St. Louis that season and remembers being in awe of Pujols after he launched a two-run homer off flamethrower Aroldis Chapman.

"Chapman was dominating everybody, except for AP," Cozart said. "I was thinking, 'Man, that's why he's one of the best.' Obviously, I was just kind of starstruck, being a rookie and playing vs. him."

Pujols' star power has dulled with age, especially following the arrivals of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in Anaheim. He's also been hampered by a series of lower-body injuries since joining the Halos: He underwent knee surgery after the 2012 season, suffered a season-ending foot injury in '13 and required foot surgeries following his '15 and '16 campaigns.

Those injuries not only diminished Pujols' speed -- he was the slowest man in baseball last year, according to Statcast™'s Sprint Speed -- but also prevented him from following his normal offseason regimen and reporting to Spring Training in optimal shape.

Pujols, who is owed $114 million over the final four seasons of his 10-year, $240 million contract, posted a career-worst .672 OPS in 2017, but the Angels were optimistic he'd be able to bounce back with the help of a surgery-free offseason. This offseaon, Pujols stayed in Southern California and worked out at Proactive Sports Performance, focusing on improving his flexibility and agility.

After dropping about 15 pounds, Pujols reported to Spring Training looking noticeably trimmer and stronger. His improved conditioning has yielded tangible results so far: Pujols' Sprint Speed of 22.6 feet per second is up from the 21.8 feet per second he recorded last year, while his grounded-into-double-play rate is now 11 percent, down from 19 percent in 2017.

"The last few offseasons, he was banged up and was battling rehab," Trout said. "Now that he's had a full offseason where he can get stronger and get in better shape for the start of the season, it's paying off."

Over 24 games this season, Pujols is batting .257 with a .734 OPS, five homers and 14 RBIs as the Angels' cleanup hitter. He's also playing first base regularly to allow the Halos to use Ohtani as their designated hitter a few times a week. Pujols has already started 13 games at first base this season, seven more than all of last year.

Video: LAA@HOU: Pujols reaches over railing for tough catch

"That's my job," Pujols said. "I don't care. Whatever they need from me, I'll be there. This is not about Albert Pujols. This is about the Angels' organization and helping this team be better. Whatever it takes, I'm going to do that."

Pujols' selflessness extends beyond the field, as he and his wife, Deidre, are renowned for their dedication to their charity work. The couple founded the Pujols Family Foundation in 2005 and focused on enriching the lives of families of children with Down syndrome and supporting impoverished families in the Dominican Republic. In addition to balancing his baseball commitments, Pujols also hosts events year-round, including celebrity golf tournaments and dinners, to raise money for the causes.

In 2008, Pujols won the Roberto Clemente Award for his tireless efforts, a prize that will be a part of his legacy as much as any baseball milestone.

"There's nobody like him," La Russa said. "There's some good ones. But nobody's better."

Maria Guardado covers the Angels for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Los Angeles Angels, Albert Pujols