It’s been no secret that Albert Pujols has not been having the 2012 that he wanted. While he does have a shiny 10-year, $240 million contract that he signed with the Angels during the offseason, not much else has been going the slugger’s way. Nearly unanimously regarded as the greatest hitters of a generation, Pujols has made a living off being a powerful hitter that strikes fear in the opposing pitching. However, for the first month of this season, it’s looked like he left that powerful swing back in St. Louis. He set a new record for homerless at-bats to start a season, most consecutive at-bats without a home run, and matched his longest games-without-a-hit streak in his career. All in all, not what the Halos were looking for. Heading into this weekend, Albert and his teammates kept telling everyone to keep the faith and that things would work themselves out. Then things got worse…but now maybe they’re a little bit better.
On Friday, the Angels were hosting the Blue Jays, one day after getting shut out by Brandon Morrow, with Pujols on the brink of the inconceivable. Heading into the game, Pujols was hitting just .202 and another bad showing would dip him under .200, which is not where you want the heart of your order to be hitting in May. The Angels got shut out for the second straight game, and the seventh time this season, with Pujols going 0-for-4 on the night to dip him down below the Mendoza line at a putrid .194. The hometown Angels’ fans had gotten so frustrated they could only express it in one way: a chorus of boos.
Nobody thought that the fans would have any reason to boo The Machine when he signed on with the Angels, but dipping below .200 on May 4 with no home runs on the season and only one RBI since April 15 is the kind of production that will get people to turn on you. The expectations from watching Pujols dominate at the plate for a decade in addition to the pressure of living up to a quarter of a billion dollar, decade long contract meant anything less than pure fireworks from Pujols would have resulted in some feelings of disappointment. To get nothing but duds, though? They’re lucky they haven’t had to quell any riots yet.
With things going about as bad as they possibly could for Pujols, manager Mike Scioscia did the very last thing he probably thought he would have to do this season when he benched his future Hall of Fame first baseman for Saturday’s game. It was now officially rock bottom for Pujols and the Angels. The performance wasn’t there, the fans had started to turn, and the team’s hitting was sputtering so they had little choice but to sit Pujols for a “mental health day” to see if some time away could help clear things out and get Albert’s mind back where it needed to be. That being wherever it goes to hit baseballs a long long ways. Scioscia wanted Pujols to take the day off from anything baseball, even going so far as to keep him out of batting practice and telling him not to even touch a bat during his day off. The thought was if he can take a clean break from the game, even for just 24 hours, maybe his mind could relax a little bit and let him get back to doing what he has done so naturally for so long: hit.
Pujols was back at first base for the Angels on Sunday, and through the first two at-bats, it looked like their experiment had failed. After a fly-out to left and looking terrible while striking out, it looked like this was the same Pujols-impostor that had been suiting up for the Angels all season. Then the fifth inning came along, and the long terrible nightmare finally ended. Drew Hutchison delivered a 2-2 slider that Pujols got a hold of, sending a screaming line drive over the left-field fence for a 390-foot two run home run. After 110 homerless at-bats, he finally ripped one, and a frustrated fanbase erupted. The home crowd gave him a standing ovation as he rounded the bases that lasted long after he had gotten back to the dug out. His teammates all gave him the “silent treatment” celebration, where they all filed into the locker room while he rounded the bases, only to come back out with him, celebrating as a group. Pujols jumped around, he laughed, he gave high fives, and he smiled, the weight of that first home run finally off his back. Even better, the blast proved to be the difference in the game, as the Angels went on to win 4-3 and salvage a split with Toronto.
So with the pressure now off, will this mean Pujols will start to turn things around on a more regular basis? We can all hope so. For now, he’s still hitting under .200 after going 1-for-4, and hasn’t had a multi-hit game in nearly a month, so there’s still plenty to be desired from The Machine. But the longest power outage of his career is finally behind him, so now maybe he can get back to just naturally being himself, free from trying to press for that first big shot. There’s still a long ways to go before Pujols really gets “back,” but at least he’s finally taken the first 390-foot step. The rest should be a lot easier.