HOUSTON — They are veterans with long track records of success, players the Angels are leaning heavily on to help end their four-year playoff drought, and one week into the season they seem a bit lost, a little out of sorts, one on the mound and one at the plate.
Jered Weaver gave up only five hits in 5 2/3 innings of Sunday's 7-4 loss to the Houston Astros, but four left Minute Maid Park, the right-hander's inability to command his fastball the primary culprit in the career-high-tying four homers he gave up, to Jason Castro, Matt Dominguez, Jesus Guzman and Alex Presley.
And Albert Pujols, a three-time National League most valuable player in St. Louis, put three meager swings on balls before lashing a ninth-inning single to left field that sparked a three-run rally, his average sitting at an un-Pujols-like .200 with four strikeouts and no walks through six games.
"I can't force myself to get hits — all I can do is prepare myself and do the best I can," Pujols said. "It's the same thing with pitching. You think Weav wanted to leave those pitches up so they can take advantage of them? This game looks easy from outside, but from the inside, it's really tough.
"You go through personal struggles, and you need to figure out how to handle them. I've been around for a while, Jered too. We know we're going to figure it out. It's a matter of time. One blooper here or there — it might be that swing to left field today, who knows?"
Pujols drew rave reviews this spring from teammates and coaches, and not only because he hit .321 (18 for 56) in 21 exhibition games. The first baseman was happy and healthy, fully recovered from the plantar fascia tear in his left foot that sidelined him for the final two months of 2013.
But through six games of 2014, Pujols looks more like the player who struggled out of the gate in 2012, when he hit .193 with one homer and nine runs batted in in his first 28 games after signing a 10-year, $240-million contract.
Pujols hasn't been able to extend his arms much and is swinging at too many inside pitches, resulting in eight groundouts to the left side, two of them double plays, two infield popups and five fly-ball outs.
"It's a little frustrating because I'm getting some pitches I know I can do damage with," Pujols said. "But at the same time, it's part of the game, and you can't let it get to you. With what I went through in 2012 — that's the worst thing that can happen to a player — I learned from that. This game is not going to get to me."
What Pujols learned is to remain patient and confident, to trust that his stroke will return. Despite his rough start in 2012, he finished with a .285 average, 30 homers, 50 doubles and 105 RBIs.
"Right now, I'm in between or out in front," Pujols said. "You take as many swings as you can in spring training, but for me, it takes half of April, close to 100 at-bats, for me to start feeling good at the plate."
Weaver, who is 0-2 with a 6.00 earned-run average after two starts, said he feels good physically, but after being slowed by shoulder tendinitis for three years, it's almost as if he's learning to pitch with a sound arm again.
"It just hasn't been consistent mechanically for me," he said. "The way my arm is feeling, there are no restrictions. It feels good coming out. I've just got to stay on top of that fastball. I'm getting underneath it, and that's causing them to be elevated. Sometimes I try to manipulate the ball when I shouldn't."
Castro's two-run homer in the first actually came on a changeup. Dominguez hit a curve in the second, Guzman hit a fastball in the fourth, and Presley hit a curve in the fifth.
"I made a couple mistakes, and they didn't miss them," Weaver said. "It was pretty much home run derby out there."