Albert Pujols sat in front of his locker Wednesday afternoon, an ice pack strapped to his sore lower back and a smile creasing his face.
The ice pack is there after every game. The smile? Not so much.
After giving the Angels' playoff hopes a boost with another milestone hit in a 9-4 rout of the Oakland Athletics, Pujols had reason to be happy.
His second-inning home run off Cy Young candidate Sonny Gray was the 555th of his career, tying him with Manny Ramirez for 14th on baseball's all-time list. It also made him just the fourth player — after Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt and Alex Rodriguez — to hit at least 35 homers 10 times in his first 15 seasons.
"Every time Albert does something, there is usually a little asterisk next to it of who he is catching," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Albert is obviously putting together a Hall of Fame career.
"But we know it's not over. If you talk to him, he has as much passion to play this game now as he ever has."
Pujols has found some peace and perspective in accepting the injuries that 2have nagged him over the last three seasons will probably trouble him as long as he continues to play. And he's not the first one who's had to deal with that.
"Michael Jordan, Kobe, Tiger Woods. The guys who had great success in their careers, sooner or later, because of injuries, they slow down," Pujols said. "The main thing for myself [is] I'm really mentally tough and I try to stay focused on the things that I can do.
"I know how to play hurt; I've played hurt probably half of my career. But it's hard."
It's also requires concessions. Although he's a former Gold Glove-winning first baseman, more than half of Pujols' starts since mid-August have come as a designated hitter. And that's likely to continue; the Angels rushed Efren Navarro back to the majors before Wednesday's game to give them more depth at first base.
But Pujols' goal isn't to be playing first base in September. It's to still be playing baseball, at any position, in late October.
"Winning a championship here would be huge," said Pujols, who played in three World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals but has appeared in just three playoff games since joining the Angels before the 2012 season. "At the end of the day, when you retire you can look back. You don't worry about 2012 or '13 or '14.
"All you worry about is the success you've had and trying to win a championship."
That looked improbable when the Angels' offense disappeared in August. The team's first 19-loss month since 1999 knocked the Angels out of the division race and dropped them to fourth in the wild-card standings.
However, the Angels have won both in September, having scored 15 runs in consecutive wins over the A's to end their trip on a high and give them consecutive wins for just the second time since mid-July.
The turnaround couldn't come at a better time — the Angels' next three games are against the Texas Rangers, the team that entered Wednesday holding the league's final playoff berth.
"It's time to go," said third baseman David Freese, one of five Angels to collect multiple hits Wednesday in support of starter Andrew Heaney (6-2), who overcame a poor start to go seven innings.
"If you're not going to bring the energy in September — especially when you have a chance to get to October — what are we doing out there?"
Right-hander Garrett Richards (12-10, 3.80) will open the Angels' three-game series with the Texas Rangers on Friday at Angel Stadium. He'll be opposed by left-hander Martin Perez (2-3, 5.15). TV: FS West Radio: 830, 1330.