Angels

Albert Pujols' lights-out hitting lights up Angels' season

Albert Pujols has been putting numbers for the Angels this season

Jerry Dipoto had an inkling Albert Pujols would have a big year in February, when the Angels first baseman began rifling balls all over the field at the team's spring-training complex in Tempe, Ariz.

"From the start of camp, you could see his bat speed, bat plane, the exit speed of the ball off his bat and how easily he was hitting those long line drives to center field, left-center and right-center," the Angels general manager said before Tuesday night's 13-3 loss to the Houston Astros.

"Those were things we didn't really see his first three years here. His legs wouldn't allow him to do it."

But this? A 24-game tear in which Pujols hit .352 (31 for 88) with 15 home runs, 30 runs batted in and four strikeouts entering Tuesday? At age 35, and four years and two lower-body injuries removed from an 11-year St. Louis Cardinals career in which he was one of baseball's most feared sluggers?

"Nobody could have expected this," Dipoto said. "He's been unbelievable for the last month. What's amazing is this is what he did in his mid-20's every month for whole seasons. It brought to mind all the things he did in St. Louis."

Pujols had a career .328 average, .420 on-base percentage and .617 slugging percentage in St. Louis, but he had never hit 15 homers with 30 RBIs in a 24-game stretch in a single season.

According to STATS LLC, Pujols, who leads the American League with 23 homers, ranks second in slugging (.581) and is tied for fifth with 47 RBIs, is the first player in major league history to hit 15 homers in a 24-game span with fewer than five strikeouts.

"He's showing the world why he'll go down as maybe the greatest right-handed hitter to ever play the game," said Angels third baseman David Freese, who played two seasons with Pujols in St. Louis.

"People talk about what he did five years ago, 10 years ago . . . this stretch he's on now is unreal. He's an absolute animal."

A strong foundation has been a key. Pujols underwent right-knee surgery after 2012, his first season with the Angels, and suffered a season-ending left-heel tear in late July of 2013.

He had a strong 2014, hitting .272 with 28 homers and 105 RBIs, but last winter was his first since coming to Anaheim that he did his normal strength and conditioning program without rehabilitating from a major injury.

"Health plays a big part in this game," Freese said. "For power guys, your lower half is important in driving the ball. It's where you gain all your energy, what you use to hammer the ball. In the year and a half I've been here, this is as explosive as I've seen Albert's legs."

Pujols hit a game-winning grand slam in an eight-run seventh inning at Oakland on Friday night. He homered twice in Monday night's win over Houston, his seventh-inning blast to center traveling 438 feet.

Pujols wouldn't go that deep when asked how he's feeling at the plate.

"I don't want to talk about that," he said. "I'm just seeing the ball good, putting my best swing on it. It's the same thing I've been doing all year. I'm just getting better breaks, I guess."

Dipoto said it's "absolutely nuts" how seldom Pujols strikes out. Almost as surprising is that during the 24-game stretch he was intentionally walked only three times, twice in Arizona last Thursday.

But that could change. With runners on second and third and one out in the first inning Tuesday night, the Astros walked Pujols intentionally, and Freese grounded into a double play.

"When you have two of the best players in the game, Mike [Trout] and Albert, hitting third and fourth, it's our job as guys who surround them to do our part," Freese said. "These homers aren't always going to come like they are. Albert is going to walk, Mike is going to walk, and we have to pick up the slack."

One way to prevent opponents from pitching around Pujols is to have traffic on the bases ahead of him.

"If we create enough in front of him, it's going to be tough to not pitch to him without opening up what could be a huge inning," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "But when he's swinging like he is, that's part of the program, an occasional intentional walk."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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