Senior Baseball Columnist

Angels look for answers after historically awful start

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The Angels' bullpen has struggled this season, as Jordan Walden lost his closer's role last week. (Getty Images)  
The Angels' bullpen has struggled this season, as Jordan Walden lost his closer's role last week. (Getty Images)  

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Passing through desperation now, the next stop for the Angels is fiasco. And it's about a week away. Another few losses, even the Rally Monkey will be on anti-depressants.

This is the game's most unbelievable ongoing story, baseball's version of the wreck from which you simply can't avert your eyes. At 7-15 before Monday night's 4-3 edging of the Twins, the Angels had matched their worst 22-game start ever, in 1976. There is twisted metal and broken glass on the ground everywhere, and that's just when watching Albert Pujols at the plate.

Can this really be happening? Can the team that won the winter while jacking its payroll up to $155 million really trail the Texas Rangers by nine games after the season's first month? Can the greatest active slugger in the game really be flexing his muscles less often than, gulp, Chone Figgins?

They will start winning, won't they?

It can't get any worse, right?

"I've said that a lot lately," right fielder Torii Hunter moaned before the Angels' latest chance to get it right, the opener of a six-game homestand Monday against the Twins and, later this week, the Blue Jays.

Everyone keeps waiting for things to turn. Everyone keeps watching Pujols, as if the next at-bat is the one where he'll fix things and make everything all right.

He will start hitting, right?

"You're going to see when it's coming," Pujols warned after going 1 for 4, a double, his first extra-base hit since April 19.

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The numbers look like something being reflected back out of a fun house mirror.

Into this week, 245 different major-league players had walloped at least one home run this season. Pujols, incredibly, wasn't one of them. A total of 300 different players had connected since Pujols' last regular-season long ball last Sept. 22.

Pujols now has gone 23 games and 92 at-bats without a home run after averaging one every 14.3 at-bats during 11 years with the Cardinals. At this pace, he'll arrive at the longest homerless streak of his career, 105 at-bats last April and May, sometime around Thursday.

But it's not merely the zero under his "HR" line. It's the extraordinary lack of production that has gone along with it. Pujols is dragging a .217 batting average behind him. He has only four RBI on the season. And he has gone 14 consecutive games without an RBI.

Someone, somewhere, surely will pay for this.

But right now, Pujols is doing the nearly impossible. He's threatening to make Adam Dunn feel good about his 2011 season with the White Sox.

Manager Mike Scioscia, working overtime to smile and provide a nobody's-panicking vibe before Monday's game, called Pujols' drought a "complicated issue with a simple solution."

"The solution is for him to get comfortable in the batter's box," Scioscia said. "He's too good a hitter not to figure this out."

There is no doubt about that.

Pujols is a three-time Most Valuable Player. A nine-time All-Star. His .6168 career slugging percentage into this season ranked fourth all-time among those player with a minimum of 3,000 plate appearances behind Babe Ruth (.6897), Ted Williams (.6338) and Lou Gehrig (.6324).

That's why it is so astounding that Figgins right now has two more home runs than Pujols. And that Jeff Mathis, the old Angel, has two home runs in only five starts in Toronto. And that, as this week dawned, only three players in the majors had more at-bats without a home run than Pujols: The Braves' Michael Bourn (90), the Cardinals' Rafael Furcal (89) and the Mets' Daniel Murphy (89).

It would be bad enough if it were only Pujols who was underperforming.

But the rest of the Angels mostly have been abysmal, too.

"It's really crazy to see the whole ballclub going through this," Pujols said after Monday's game. "It seems like everybody is going through a little funk.

"It's a long season. I can't wait until we start getting those breaks."

The bullpen is 0-6 with a 5.26 ERA. Only Tampa Bay's (6.17) and Boston's (6.34) have been worse. That Jordan Walden was an AL All-Star as a rookie last season speaks more to the state of the All-Star Game than it does to Walden. He finished poorly last year and started poorly this year, and Scioscia last week relieved him from the ninth and names Scott Downs as the new closer.

We'll see how long that lasts. Meanwhile, Fernando Rodney, run out of Anaheim, is tied for the AL lead with seven saves down in Tampa Bay.

Until Saturday's 2-1 victory in Cleveland, the Angels had been 0-6 in one-run games. As it is, they're 1-12 when scoring three or fewer runs. Meanwhile, Mike Napoli (seven home runs, 14 RBI in 20 games) has become a cult hero in Texas.

While losing five of six in Tampa Bay and Cleveland over the past week, the Angels twice were shut out, batted .165 (31 for 88) and hit .133 (4 for 30) with runners in scoring position. They have been shut out four times in 22 games.

Mark Trumbo, who had 29 home runs and 87 RBI last year while finishing second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, was not in the lineup again Monday night, a lineup that is ever-changing.

Little has either looked or felt settled with these $155 million Angels. Scioscia used 20 different lineups in the first 22 games. Two days before phenom Mike Trout's recall from Triple-A Salt Lake, Scioscia had said Trout would not be recalled. Last Friday in Cleveland, the Angels released Bobby Abreu, deciding to eat what was left of his $9 million contract.

That was a move they should have made this spring. Instead, they promised Abreu 400 plate appearances to pacify him early in camp. That created an unwieldy and bloated roster in which the parts simply did not fit well together.

Trout adds speed and a dimension atop the lineup the Angels were lacking. Through their first 20 games, Angels leadoff hitters combined to bat .195 with a .250 on-base percentage.

"We don't expect Mike to be the cavalry," Scioscia said. "We expect him to do what he does to his capability."

Same thing the Angels expect from Pujols after signing him for $240 million, though, as Scioscia said, that's a complicated issue.

"At times, he's taken pitches he'd like to have back," Scioscia said. "And at times, he's expanded the [strike] zone."

While going 1 for 4 on Monday night against Minnesota, with a double in the first that should have been a single had Josh Willingham not misplayed it, Pujols looked overeager and out of sync. After belting a screaming foul ball down the left field line in the fifth inning, he admitted to swinging at a 3 and 1 pitch that "probably would have hit me in the stomach."

"I really believe that Albert is the one dynamic in our lineup who can really get [the lineup] going by getting on his game," Scioscia said. "It's not all on Albert, but I do think he's that dynamic."

We've seen it before, Pujols becoming so scorching hot that he carries a team on his back for a week or so. He has done it long enough that he surely will do it again. The waiting is what's killing these Angels -- right now, they rank 13th in the AL in runs scored, home runs and OPS.

"It's only going to get better, man," said Hunter, who belted a two-run homer Monday night.

Better had better come quickly. April has been miserable enough that the Angels might well have played themselves right out of the AL West race and into the wild-card chase.

Sure, it's way early. But are they 10 games better than the Rangers from here through September?

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