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Spring numbers belie Pujols' improved health

Refusing label of DH, Angels first baseman sees return of timing, athleticism

PEORIA, Ariz. -- In 2006, the World Baseball Classic and a brief bout with plantar fasciitis limited Albert Pujols to 10 Spring Training games, and then he hit a career-high 49 home runs during the regular season. In 2012, he posted a 1.287 OPS in his first Cactus League stint, then didn't hit his first home run in an Angels uniform until his 28th game.

For established veterans with a guaranteed starting spot on a Major League roster, Spring Training is all about getting the body ready for a season and very little about a line score. That is especially the case for Pujols, who is working his way back from a season that ended in late July because of plantar fasciitis.

"I'm pretty happy," Pujols said Friday morning. "Compared to last year when I came here, by the second week of Spring Training, it was my plantar. I was really frustrated. So I'm really excited and happy how I'm playing first base and how I'm moving."

Pujols points to how much lower he can crouch before a pitch and how much farther he can play off the bag as an indication that he is starting to get back to his old self defensively, after starting 65 of his 99 games at designated hitter in 2013. When asked if he expected to play this many games at first base in Spring Training -- nine of his 10 starts have come there -- he said, "I'm a first baseman, not a DH."

Plays like his two diving stops in Scottsdale on March 5 and over-the-shoulder catch on a fly ball in foul territory in Tempe on Thursday help one remember that Pujols is actually a good first baseman.

"If I'm healthy, I'm going to be playing first base," said Pujols, who had Friday off after playing three in a row at first base. "I'll probably DH once or twice here and there, but for the most part, I'm expecting myself to play first base."

The schedule should allow Pujols to ease into that, too, because the Angels have six consecutive Thursdays off to start the regular season, and they will play five games in National League parks by the middle of May.

"We're going to continue to monitor it," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We're not just throwing him out there and getting him where he's going to be at risk. He understands it enough not to put himself in that position. I don't know if surprised is the right word, but we're very pleased that he's shown the Gold Glove caliber of defense that he has in him."

And Pujols' timing at the plate is starting to creep back after a long layoff from live pitching.

Pujols managed only one seeing-eye single in his first 15 Cactus League at-bats, mainly rolling over on breaking balls away and getting jammed on fastballs inside and guessing with two strikes. But he is starting to square balls up again. He hit line-drive RBI doubles down the left-field line on Tuesday and Wednesday, then crushed one to deep center field for a sac fly on Friday -- he has been on base seven times in the last four games.

"I feel better than that first week," said Pujols, whose Cactus League slash line is at .240/.355/.320. "Remember, I missed 300 at-bats last year. I've never gone this long without seeing live pitching. This is my first time in my 13-, 14-year career. But I feel better. It seems like my first week I was a little bit uncomfortable, but I started seeing the ball better, getting better at-bats, seeing pitches."

Pujols' left foot is now completely healthy, and so is a right knee that constantly swelled as he slowly recovered from arthroscopic surgery last year. But he is 34 years old, with more than 2,000 Major League games (including the playoffs) under his belt, and it is unclear how many of those came under the type of physical pain he has proved able to tolerate.

Asked if he was back to his old self running, Pujols said: "Not really. Not completely. I think in the next couple of weeks here, running the bases, strengthening my legs more and more, I think it's going to get better. I feel good. But obviously the more I get on base, the better it's going to be for me. And obviously that's been the case the last four games."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Albert Pujols