Senior Baseball Columnist

While Pujols finds his way, Morales ready to get back to running speed


Morales knows he's getting back to full strength after hitting a homer on Monday against the A's. (Getty Images)  
Morales knows he's getting back to full strength after hitting a homer on Monday against the A's. (Getty Images)  

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The big man flexed his muscles and re-introduced himself as a card-carrying force in the middle of the Angels' lineup.

Albert Pujols?


Kendrys Morales.

While Pujols continues to find his footing in his new home, it was Morales who had the struggling Angels' dugout jumping for joy -- well, maybe that's a bad choice of words -- when he belted his first home run in nearly two years Monday night.

And when he returned to the dugout, manager Mike Scioscia cracked up more than a few Angels.

"He looked over at Kendrys and said, 'You finally hit a home run you didn't get hurt on," hitting coach Mickey Hatcher reported.

Yes, while the Angels await one big man to figure it out, the other is showing signs of lift-off.

Morales hadn't homered since May 29, 2010, when he obliterated his left ankle while leaping on the plate following a game-winner against Seattle.

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Now, he says, look out.

"It felt extremely good," Morales told me through a translator Tuesday. "I haven't hit one in the regular season in a long time.

"They're going to come in bunches now."

Mark those words, and we'll see if his prediction comes true.

"I think you'll see that happen with Albert, too," Hatcher said. "The first couple of games, things kind of clicked off for him. But now he's starting to feel like he did in spring training."

Never before at the start of a season has Pujols gone this long without a homer. With a career average of one every 14.3 at-bats, Pujols is now up to 45 homerless at-bats to begin 2012. He's hitting just .267, with four doubles and four RBI over 11 games.

The longest homerless drought of his career came last April and May -- a span of 105 at-bats.

"I'm doing great," Pujols said of adjusting to new surroundings. "I don't look at the numbers. Numbers don't judge how I feel.

"I've had good, quality at-bats lately. You look at my last 20 at-bats, I've been smoking the ball. What can you do? That's why it's a long season."

Meaning, in the end, his numbers will be there.

"Think about it," Torii Hunter said. "The National League is totally different than the American League. He doesn't know the ballparks, the pitching. Let him get acclimated."

No matter how slow Pujols is traveling now, Athletics manager Bob Melvin noted, "you always know where Albert is."

Melvin also said that the Angels "have plenty of insulation around him. Morales was 0 for 14, and then you see the type of at-bats he had Monday night."

Morales busted out of the oh-fer by going 3 for 4 to push his average from .200 to .265 in one evening, then went 2 for 4 in the Angels' 5-3 loss Tuesday to boost his average to .289.

But it was on Monday when he announced his return with a homer, single and double. He also narrowly missed a second homer to left-center field, another fly ball victim to the cool, Southern California night air.

"That second ball Kendrys hit, that's probably out in any other park," Hatcher said. "But our park doesn't play that way."

Hatcher said Pujols understands that, and the hitting coach predicts that when Pujols begins homering "in bunches", those bunches will come on the road more often than not. Maybe that won't completely please Angels fans who have gobbled up tickets to the tune of 5,000 season seats since he signed. But they'll get over it if he starts putting baseballs over fences somewhere.

Pujols is back to working like a maniac with the hitting tee, which is his trusted back-to-basics starter's kit. And Hatcher says he sees progress.

But so far, it's as if Pujols has been declawed.

Eventually, once that changes, Hatcher predicts Angels rivals will say, "hey, we're not going to pitch to Albert", at which point the insulation surrounding him that Melvin speaks of will take over.

That's where a healthy and productive Morales, who finished fifth in the AL MVP voting in 2009, his last full season, becomes one of the most pivotal players in the game.

Will those home runs come in bunches, easing the pressure on an offense that ranked 10th in the league in runs scored last season and giving Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana some wiggle room?

Or will coming back from nearly two years away bring with it the periodic coughing and sputtering that you'd expect?

"He's strong, man," new Angels reliever LaTroy Hawkins said. "He shook my hand about a month ago, and it was like 'oh, my goodness.' Certain people, they shake your hand and you never forget it. I'll never forget that."

Morales says he feels like his swing is back, but he's still working on some "little things."

"Getting comfortable in the batter's box," he says, and that doesn't exactly sound so little now, does it?

While he is back to running at full speed, he admits that thoughts of his ankle are "still in the back of my head."

So forget the idea of, say, 15 or 20 steals.

"No chance," Morales says, chuckling. "No chance."

That's OK. The Angels have had him fielding ground balls at first base since opening day, maybe for a day when they can get Pujols off his feet but keep his bat in the lineup as DH. Morales is nowhere close to playing in the field yet, Scioscia says, but you know the drill. You've gotta walk before you can run in this game.

And with the Angels watching closely, nobody knows that better than Morales.

"Two years, we've been waiting for him to come back," Hunter says. "You could see the excitement on his face when he hit that homer. And there are going to be many more.

"This right here, this is going to be a distant memory."


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