Baseball / Sports

Braves top Angels; Pujols to stay in third spot

ATLANTA -- The Angels knew they'd have to deal with this at some point during the Albert Pujols era. They just didn't think it would be this soon.

Pujols, who signed a 10-year, $240-million contract before 2012, is a three-time National League most valuable player, a two-time World Series champion and perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter of his generation, but most of his Hall-of-Fame resume was built during his 11 years in St. Louis.

Pujols is 34 now, a little longer in the tooth and heavier in the legs, and though he's had some long productive stretches in Anaheim, he's in a prolonged slump that rivals his sluggish start to 2012, when he hit .190 with one homer and nine runs batted in through May 8.

Pujols hit .302 with 10 homers and 26 RBIs through May 6 this season, a span of 32 games. In 33 games since, he's batting .197 with five homers and 11 RBIs. He's hitting .249 with 15 homers and 37 RBIs for the season but .154 (12 for 78) with runners in scoring position, far below his .327 career mark in those situations.

Perhaps a clutch eighth-inning at-bat Friday night, when Pujols stroked a two-run single to right field to trim the deficit in an eventual 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Turner Field, will be the spark he needs to snap out of his funk.

But until he strings some hits together and drives in runs more consistently, the question that came up this week will continue to persist: Would Manager Mike Scioscia consider moving Pujols out of the third spot, a position Pujols has held for his entire career?

"His recent track record, if you look at the way he struggled in 2012, when he got going last year, this guy's gonna hit, and he's gonna hit big," Scioscia said. "He will respond to the challenge. Right now, I think we're lining up where we need to. You always consider adjustments, but we're not there."

All 318 of Pujols' starts with the Angels have come in the third spot. Of his 1,986 career starts in 14 years, all but 51 have come in the third or cleanup spots. The last time he hit fifth or below was as a 21-year-old Cardinals rookie in 2001.

Pujols bristled Friday night when asked whether he would be open to moving down in the order.

"I think the whole reason he hasn't moved me is he trusts me," Pujols said. "He believes in me. Nobody wrote 1,500 RBIs on a piece of paper. Those were earned."

Pujols said he is not pressing with runners in scoring position.

"Pitchers are going to make good pitches, and sometimes you hit balls hard and they make plays," he said. "This game keeps you humble. You're going to struggle through some things, and hopefully mentally you grow stronger, but never in my mind do I doubt I can hit with men on base."

Scioscia liked Pujols' approach against hard-throwing right-hander Shae Simmons in the eighth inning Friday, when, with runners on second and third, Pujols stroked a 2-and-2 outside fastball to right for a two-run single.

"Hopefully it's a sign of things to come -- maybe less is more," Scioscia said. "As Albert finds his swing, I think you'll see him shooting the ball around the field. Albert is working hard at it. He understands what he brings to our team and takes that responsibility very seriously."

Angels lose, 4-3, to Braves

KEY MOMENT: The Braves had two on with two outs in the first inning when Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson fell behind Braves catcher Evan Gattis with a three-ball count. Gattis got the green light and crushed a three-run homer to left-center field. Chris Johnson followed with a homer to center to give the Braves a 4-0 lead.

AT THE PLATE: The Angels took advantage of center fielder B.J. Upton's error to score twice in the eighth, Mike Trout putting runners on second and third with a bloop double to right and Albert Pujols stroking a two-run single to right to make it 4-3. Josh Hamilton walked to put two on, but Howie Kendrick struck out, and Erick Aybar grounded to first to end the inning. Hank Conger doubled and scored on a wild pitch in the third.

ON THE MOUND: Wilson rebounded from his rocky first to blank the Braves on three hits over the next five innings, but there was no moral victory. "I'm not satisfied at all," he said. "I gave up four runs and two homers in the first. There's no reward for a loss. Ever." Atlanta right-hander Aaron Harang, who entered with an 0-5 record and 7.59 earned-run average in seven starts against the Angels, allowed one run and four hits in six innings to improve to 5-5. Braves closer Craig Kimbrel struck out two of three in the ninth, including Raul Ibanez on a 99-mph game-ending fastball, for his 19th save.

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