Angels' Albert Pujols is thrilled to be an All-Star again

It was a midsummer night's tradition for Mike Trout's family, which would gather around the television in their Millville, N.J., home to watch the All-Star game every July.

Trout, now the Angels wunderkind of a center fielder and a four-time All-Star at age 23, could always count on his boyhood idol, former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, to be in the game.

But there was another player who caught Trout's eye because he, too, was an All-Star fixture, an iconic player like Jeter, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn who was in the game virtually every year.

It was Albert Pujols, the former St. Louis slugger and now Angels first baseman and teammate who was a nine-time All-Star from 2001 to 2010.

"The best players play in that game, and he was one of the best, his numbers were pretty stupid," Trout said before Saturday night's game against the Seattle Mariners in Safeco Field. "The numbers he put up, the years he was having, how could he not be there?"

Pujols somehow found a way, injuries and a few slow starts resulting in a four-year All-Star drought from 2011 to 2014.

But Pujols, 35, is back this season to where many believe he belongs, the health of his legs providing the foundation for a huge first half that earned him not only a start in Tuesday night's All-Star game in Cincinnati but a spot in Monday's home run derby.

"When you think of Albert Pujols, you think of one of the best first basemen in the game for the last 15 years," Angels third baseman David Freese said. "As a fan, you expect a guy like that to be in the All-Star game. He's healthy and helping our team win. It's going to be nice to see him in the game."

Pujols fractured his left wrist June 20, 2011, and was not picked for the All-Star game that summer. A brutal start to his Angels career, when he hit .190 with one home run and nine runs batted in through May 8, dashed his All-Star hopes in 2012.

Pujols was not All-Star worthy in 2013, when he hit .249 with 15 home runs and 57 RBIs in the first half and was slowed by an inflamed plantar fascia in his left heel and a sore right knee. He had a better first half in 2014, hitting .279 with 20 home runs and 64 RBIs, but it wasn't good enough to be on the team.

There was no denying Pujols this season. He began play Saturday with a .259 average, .329 on-base percentage, .544 slugging percentage, 26 home runs — tying him with Trout for the American League lead — and 56 RBIs.

And during a torrid 37-game stretch from May 27 through Tuesday, Pujols had a .299/.392/.730 slash line with 18 home runs, 39 RBIs, 19 walks and 11 strikeouts to help the Angels surge back into the AL West race.

"He put us on his back and carried us for a month, both he and Trout, and kept us alive," closer Huston Street said. "He's one of the best baseball players of all-time, and he's having one of the best seasons of his career. That says enough."

It's easier to carry a club with strong legs. Pujols has a unique stance in which he crouches to the point where he's almost in a sitting position, and he relies mostly on his legs to generate power. When his legs aren't 100%, neither is his swing.

"You don't teach that," hitting coach Don Baylor said. "His stance is different than anyone else's, but it works for him. He always talks about getting his legs into his swing, and I don't think he really had that last year. You could tell a difference this spring, when he was hitting balls on a line out of the park."

Trout has played only four seasons with Pujols, but he could tell the slugger wasn't right in 2014 and especially in 2013.

"When your legs are banged up and you're altering your swing … I'm not trying to make excuses for him, but I see him every day, and he plays through some aches and pains," Trout said. "He's been through a lot."

Pujols called his All-Star selection "a great honor," and he's as excited to go for the 10th time as he was the first.

"It's the same special feeling I had when I was 21," Pujols said. "It's pretty special, especially with the great players in the game right now. It's hard to get in. To put in the hard work and to feel healthy all year is rewarding."

Good health, though, is apparently relative. Pujols feels better than he did the previous two seasons, but Street said he is still playing hurt.

"He has not been all-the-way healthy this past month," Street said. "He would never talk about it. He he doesn't want people to know, and he doesn't make excuses.

"That's Albert. In the short time I've been here, I've seen him play through a hamstring, a groin, but he wants to be on the field, and that to me is what's most impressive. After all this time, he's still striving for greatness."

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