Healthy Pujols returning to form for Angels
Veteran looks like slugger of old as he moves up all-time home run list
SEATTLE -- Big league pitchers beware. Angels first baseman Albert Pujols is Albert Pujols, again -- finally.
"[Pujols] came into Spring Training looking like he was a kid again, ready to dominate again," said Angels closer Huston Street. "There are certain guys that play this game at a different level, and as a big leaguer, you enjoy watching them.
"Albert Pujols is one of those guys."
Well, sort of. Pujols is fun to watch as a teammate. He is intimidating as an opponent.
Pujols can change a game in a hurry. And he did just that against the Mariners on Wednesday night, unloading a towering two-run home run to set the tone in a four-run first inning at Safeco Field that sent the Halos on their way to a 5-3 victory, and allowed them to open the season by taking two of three from Seattle.
It also allowed Pujols to move up another rung on the list of baseball greats.
The night after he collected career double No. 562, to move to 24th place on the all-time list and tops among active players, Pujols belted career home run No. 521, second to Alex Rodriguez among active players and now tied for 18th all-time with the Hall of Fame trio of Willie McCovey, Frank Thomas and Ted Williams.
Not that Pujols is counting -- at least not yet.
"I don't pay attention to that, especially during the season," Pujols said. "My goal here is to come out and play. At the end of my career, I'm going to have plenty of time to look back."
And at the end of his career, Pujols is going to have plenty to look back at.
Think about it. Pujols is 35. He has six more years, after this one, remaining on his contract with the Angels. Pujols already is on the charts for career home runs and doubles, and he comes in at 48th all-time in on-base percentage, eighth in slugging percentage and ninth in OPS.
Pujols has been a top-10 finisher in Most Valuable Player Award voting 11 times in 14 big league seasons, and won the National League MVP Award in 2005, '08 and '09. The 2001 NL Rookie of the Year Award winner, he's a nine-time All-Star, who has won six Silver Slugger Awards. Pujols also earned World Series rings when the Cardinals beat the Tigers in 2006 and the Rangers in '11.
"If you told me 16 years ago I would accomplish what I have done in the game, winning World Series, getting big hits, I could not have imagined it," Pujols said.
And Pujols not done yet, not when he is finally healthy, again.
"It is hard when you are 100 percent to play this game, much less when you are injured," Pujols said. "Obviously this was a different spring for me, because I didn't come in with an achy foot or sore knee. I came in able to do the things I did for the 11 years before I was injured. It's exciting."
Exciting for the Halos, that is, but not necessary teams like the Mariners, who are looking to unseat the defending American League West champions from Anaheim. A healthy Pujols can make an opponent ail, which is what happened in the first inning on Wednesday night.
With one out, Mike Trout singled, and then Pujols unloaded against Seattle starter Hisashi Iwakuma, who had come into the game with a 6-1 record and a 2.75 ERA in his career against the Angels. Pujols connected on a towering shot down the left-field line into the upper deck.
A statement was made.
"Mike [Trout] has done so much, I think people have overlooked what Albert can do," said Halos manager Mike Scioscia.
And Pujols is confident that the hits are going to keep on coming with more regularity this year than they did in his first three years with the Angels. He is, after all, hitting "only" .273 with them, which is 55 points lower than his average for 11 seasons with the Cardinals.
It is fun to watch Pujols, said Street, because finally Street is wearing the same uniform as Pujols.
"He's no fun to face," said Street. "The last time I pitched to him [in 2011 with the Rockies], I had him 0-2, and he yanked a double down the third-base line at Coors Field."
Street shook his head.
"You learn the hard way with him," said Street. "It doesn't matter if the count is in your favor or not, you never have the advantage on him. He's too good of a hitter."
And now, Pujols is not only good, but he is healthy.
That's an unhealthy combination for the rest of the AL West.