Baseball / Sports

The Los Angeles Angels' Albert Pujols singles in the first inning against the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on Thursday, July 4, 2014, in Anaheim, Calif. (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Angels' Pujols prefers playing the field

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Albert Pujols played first base Thursday, just the way he and the Los Angeles Angels like it.

Pujols got one hit, and he was robbed of another. In the field, he ranged far to his right and made a diving stop to keep a single within the infield. He also got the Angels out of a one-out jam by nimbly starting a 3-6-1 double play.

He was not the star of the Angels' 5-2 victory over the Houston Astros on Thursday. David Freese doubled home two tiebreaking runs in the fourth inning, and Matt Shoemaker and three relievers combined to hold the Astros to two hits over the final six innings.

Still, Pujols remains a star attraction.

The season is just past the halfway point, with these curious statistics for Pujols: As a first baseman, he is batting .237, with 10 home runs in 249 at-bats and a .703 on-base plus slugging percentage. As a designated hitter, he is batting .305, with seven home runs in 82 at-bats and a .960 OPS.

On an overall basis, a .960 OPS would rank in the top 10, between Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox and Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays. An overall .703 OPS would not rank in the top 100.

Pujols is 34. The Angels have $189 million invested in him beyond this season, through 2021. At some point, he will almost certainly transition to designated hitter.

This is not that time, despite what this year's statistics might show.

"This is not about me," Pujols said Thursday. "It's about what is best for the team.

"I'm a first baseman. I'm not a DH. As long as I'm feeling good -- and I'm fine -- I'll be in the field. That's my natural position."

He was limited to a career-low 99 games last season because of injury. In spring training, manager Mike Scioscia spoke of the need to manage Pujols' workload in the field in order to keep his bat in the lineup.

"He still feels good in the batter's box," Scioscia said Thursday. "So far, so good."

Indeed, Pujols has played in 82 of the Angels' 84 games, tied for the team lead with shortstop Erick Aybar. Scioscia said "99.9 percent" of Pujols' starts at DH this season have been "preventative," rather than because he was nursing an injury, and said that Pujols has been willing to say when he needs the half-day off that the DH role offers.

"He's our best first baseman, by far," Scioscia said. "You want him out there as much as you can. When he's swinging the bat, he'll hit well in any role."

Pujols is a three-time most valuable player and two-time Gold Glove winner, proud of his ability to contribute on offense and defense. Don Baylor, the Angels' hitting coach, called Pujols "a National League guy" that should not be forced into the DH role as long as he remains capable of fielding his position.

"It's a mental thing," Baylor said. "You have to wait for your turn to hit. A lot of guys talk themselves into not wanting to do it.

"The guys who have been successful DH's, they have embraced that. Look at (Boston's David) Ortiz. That's been his career."

Baylor spent the second half of his distinguished 19-year career as a DH.

"I never got used to it," he said.

KEY MOMENT: With the score tied 2-2 in the fourth inning, David Freese doubled home two runs to give the Angels the lead for good. Freese batted .155 in his first 20 games with the Angels but is batting .289 since then, including .368 over his last 11 games. Of his past 12 hits, six have gone for extra bases. The Angels acquired Freese and reliever Fernando Salas last winter from St. Louis for outfielders Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk, who have combined to hit .188 for the Cardinals.

AT THE PLATE: Freese, Howie Kendrick and Mike Trout each had two hits for the Angels. Trout is batting .314 overall and .354 since June 1, and he is the only American League regular with an on base plus slugging percentage above 1.000. Jon Singleton, a touted Astros rookie first baseman, struck out 40 times in his first 100 career at-bats. He's batting .178.

ON THE MOUND: Matt Shoemaker (6-2) gave up two runs in six innings to earn the victory. He also struck out seven, giving him 57 strikeouts in his first 10 Angels starts. That breaks the franchise record set by Bo Belinsky, who struck out 56 in his first 10 starts. Joe Smith set his pro record with his 10th save, one more than he had for the Class A Brooklyn Cyclones in 2006.

IN THE BULLPEN: Jason Grilli has made four appearances for the Angels without giving up an earned run. He saved 33 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates last year, but manager Mike Scioscia does not sound as if he is in any hurry to try Grilli as the Angels' closer. "We're happy to have Jason," Scioscia said, "just because he has the potential to close. Right now, Joe Smith has been lights out." On Thursday, Grilli worked the eighth and Smith the ninth. Scioscia has repeatedly spoken about how valuable Smith is in the seventh and eighth innings, and the Angels have been linked to Huston Street and Joaquin Benoit of the San Diego Padres, either of whom could close in Anaheim. The Angels also would like to add a left-handed reliever. "It's tough to say what our bullpen will be two weeks from now, or a month from now," Scioscia said.

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times

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