Albert Pujols slowed to a jog as he rounded first base.
Unlike the night before, when the Angels’ aging slugger kicked his 39-year-old legs into high gear while stretching for a double, Pujols pulled into second at a much more leisurely pace on Sunday afternoon.
With his ground-rule double down the left-field line, Pujols eclipsed another personal milestone. It was the 3,185th hit of his career, moving him past Cal Ripken Jr. and all alone into 14th place on MLB’s all-time hits list.
“The guys that have the success and survive are the ones that are mentally strong,” Pujols said on Saturday night, when he reached another career landmark by becoming the fifth player to record at least 20 home runs in 17 different seasons.
“The thing is, keep your head up,” he added. “Come back tomorrow, and get a win.”
That ethos will be put to the test for the Angels this month.
Unlike Pujols — who said he hasn’t felt this healthy entering September since his last season with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011, and is hitting nearly .350 over the past 14 games — the team at large has slumped into irrelevancy in recent weeks.
After a dismal 9-18 record in August, the franchise’s worst full month since June 2016, the Angels opened September with another defeat Sunday, falling to the Boston Red Sox 4-3 in front of an announced crowd of 39,382 in Anaheim.
“I think we’ve been pretty much doing the same thing all year,” said Brian Goodwin, who collected a pair of hits but also lined into a rally-killing double-play in the seventh. “We’re able to play everybody tough.”
They just haven’t been able to win enough to stay in the mix, wasting another year of Mike Trout’s prime.
Pujols’ third-inning ground-rule double was emblematic of their struggles. Though Trout scored on the play, Goodwin was held up at third after the ball bounced off the chalk and into the seats. The inning ended with both him and Pujols still stranded.
“In hindsight, yeah it would have been great to have that,” Goodwin said. “Just some bad bounces today.”
Moving forward, Pujols believes he has “another couple years” left in him, the same time frame in which the Angels (65-73) are hoping to become a contender again. Though they’re out of the wild-card race, trailing the Cleveland Indians by 14.5 games for the American League’s final playoff spot, they might be able to use the season’s final month to get back on track for the future.
Shohei Ohtani is a prime example.
The two-way player has been busy lately. On the mound, he’s been rebuilding his stamina after last season’s Tommy John surgery. At the plate, he’s trying to snap out of a three-for-30 skid.
Manager Brad Ausmus — who was ejected at the end of Sunday’s loss for arguing that Red Sox (74-63) reliever Brandon Workman wasn’t coming set from the stretch — held Ohtani out of the starting lineup during both games this weekend, giving him a chance to reset offensively. During a lone pinch-hit at-bat Sunday, Ohtani swung the bat just once before taking a walk.
“It’s easier from a mental perspective, if you’re working on something, to just kind of run your drills and not be too concerned with game results,” Ausmus said, adding: “It’s not like he’s all of a sudden become an incapable hitter. He’s just a little bit off.”
Ohtani felt good after a bullpen session Sunday morning, saying he threw with the “same intensity, same pitch count” as a 35-pitch session last week (though he still hadn’t begun tossing his splitter).
His hitting struggles, however, which he described as a mechanical problem rather than a timing issue, continued to frustrate him.
“I’m not performing well enough to be in [the lineup],” he said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “There’s a lot of factors. There’s just a little tweak that I need to do to my swing.”
Andrew Heaney — who, depending on Ohtani’s health, is perhaps the most likely pitcher to reprise a role in the Angels’ 2020 rotation — is another work-in-progress. Instead of extending his string of three-consecutive quality starts Sunday, he lacked command early, allowed home runs on back-to-back pitches in the third to Xander Bogaerts and JD Martinez, and took the loss in a five-inning, four-run display.
“Didn’t have great energy on the mound, some mechanical-type stuff,” Heaney said.
September will afford the Angels a chance to evaluate their organizational depth too. Sunday was the first day rosters could be expanded to 40 men, enabling the club to call up hitters Justin Bour, Michael Hermosillo and Taylor Ward, and pitchers Jake Jewell, Luke Bard, Jared Walsh and Adalberto Mejia.
Ausmus said there are a few more players who could be added to the roster, but called the initial wave of arrivals “the bulk” of the team’s expected transactions.
“The most important thing is getting guys experience that don’t necessarily have a lot of experience,” Ausmus said. “Giving the organization the opportunity to watch them play against major league pitching, or major league pitchers facing major league batters. That being said, a chunk of these guys we’ve already seen, that we’ve called up.”
Ward, a former first-round draft pick in 2015 out of Fresno State, fits that description. The 25-year-old has bounced between the big league club and triple-A Salt Lake over the last two seasons — though his career MLB batting average is just .172, he hit .306 with 27 home runs in Salt Lake this season – and might get a more extended look in the majors this month.
“Being here, you’re going to see something you haven’t seen,” Ward said. “You’re going to grow. The experience here is very important.”
That can be true even as the Angels fade from the postseason race. The more their season winds down, the more their attention will turn toward the future.
“If we continue to stay here and continue to battle, and everybody has each other’s backs,” Goodwin said, “you’ll start seeing a lot of those games, close games, we’ll end up being on the right side of.”