Brushing aside jitters, Pujols happy to make debut
With knee not yet 100 percent, slugger goes 0-for-3, runs with care out of box
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols gets nervous, just like anyone else. But only three times a year.
Pujols, a three-time Most Valuable Player and a nine-time All-Star, faced one of those rare occasions against the Reds on Tuesday, when he made his first appearance in Spring Training. That moment always gives him jitters, he said, as does his first at-bat in the regular season and the playoffs.
So how does he combat that feeling? Pujols, who spent the first few weeks of the Cactus League recovering from offseason surgery on his right knee, said he thinks of some heady advice from his father, who frequently told him when growing up, "If you're not nervous, you're not ready."
"You have to feel that," said Pujols, who went 0-for-3 in his first game of the exhibition season. "I won't lie to you. I was feeling a little bit nervous out there, but it was just good to be in the dugout."
And if it felt good for Pujols, imagine how it felt for the Angels to have their No. 3 hitter back in the fold. Pujols batted .285 with 30 home runs and 105 RBIs for the Angels last year, and Los Angeles got to see him team with dynamic cleanup hitter Josh Hamilton for the first time on Tuesday.
That was a bit of a surprise in the morning, because Pujols had previously said that he didn't expect to get in the lineup until mid-March. The slugger had only taken live batting practice twice in Spring Training, but he was able to sprint over the weekend and pronounced himself ready to play.
"You guys needed something to write, so I gave you something for you guys to write," said Pujols before the game, teasing a group of reporters who hung on every word. "Obviously, it's great to be in the lineup. I want to try to get some at-bats and get [myself] ready for the season."
Pujols got that opportunity on Tuesday, and he faced two pitchers with big league experience. Pujols grounded out against Cincinnati starter Mike Leake, and he struck out on a nasty slider from Aroldis Chapman, one of the league's hardest throwers. Pujols grounded out again in his third at-bat.
But for one day, it wasn't about the results. Pujols was just happy to get a chance to hit, and he said before the game that it would be silly to expect him to have perfect timing.
"You always have rust," he said. "I haven't seen a live pitch probably in two weeks. Spring Training is to let you work and get your timing down. They haven't handed the MVP or the batting title to guys in Spring Training. When that happens, you get yourself ready in the offseason."
Pujols still hasn't done baserunning drills, and the Angels made a special arrangement to have a pinch-runner for him Tuesday if he had reached base. The veteran still hasn't been able to take repetitions at first base, either, and he said he doesn't expect to play the field for another week or two.
Manager Mike Scioscia said he was thrilled to get Pujols back in the lineup, and he said that the Angels will be as careful as possible before they expose him to too much strain. Tuesday was a good step, he said, but it was just that: One step on the road to getting Pujols ready.
"Some guys had some high octane out there," he said. "I thought he was on a couple pitches, and just in the batter's box trying to get a comfort zone. It's a good workout for him, but we'll take it one step at a time and see how he comes out of it, see when he's ready to get back out there."
Pujols said he is pleased that Spring Training is longer than usual this year, because it allows him time to recuperate without missing much of the schedule. Sure, the Angels have already played 12 games, but Pujols knows that he has plenty of time before they take the field for Opening Day.
"If Opening Day had been two weeks ago, then yes, I would've been frustrated," he said of his time spent recovering. "I don't even like to use the word frustrated because this is just a game. I made up my mind coming down that I knew it was going to be a little bit before I got into games."
The Angels have been working through a similar situation with Hamilton, who was troubled early in camp by a sore right quadriceps muscle. But Hamilton was healthy enough to play right field for just the second time this spring on Tuesday, and he said he was psyched to hit behind Pujols.
"I always think about where Albert's been in his career and what he's done and how consistent he's been," he said. "We'll get his knee rolling, and his butt better be running around the bases scoring."
Hamilton was teasing with that last comment, and he emphasized his joke with a wink. But one thing is certain: Opposing pitchers will tread lightly with the middle of the Angels' lineup, especially if Mike Trout is on base in front of them. But Pujols, who's only been with the Angels for a year, doesn't want to be singled out, not even in tandem with Hamilton. For Pujols, there's always a higher goal.
"This is not about me and Josh. This is about the Angels' organization and our lineup," he said. "I think we've got pretty good potential. Me and him, we're just part of this big lineup. Hopefully, we can contribute the way that we know how to do and hopefully help this organization to win."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.