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The management of Albert Pujols ... and his legs

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

ARLINGTON, Texas -- And on the Angels' fifth game day … Albert Pujols rested.

Sort of.

And … already?

In the first of what figures to be a series of designated hitter dates, manager Mike Scioscia slotted his $240 million man there on Saturday.

It was at once a wise move, to manage Pujols' legs this early in the season … and a disconcerting one, given that those legs must carry the 33-year-old slugger through nine more years on his monster Angels deal.

It came as no surprise, as Scioscia said throughout the spring that Pujols would see some time at DH, particularly early in the year.

But the fact that the plantar fasciitis in Pujols' left foot continues to give him problems could have growing and debilitating ripple effects as he and the Angels move through 2013.

“It's never bothered me this early in the season,” Pujols said Saturday afternoon. “I'm surprised.”

It did not look like his foot was bothering him much during the Angels' 8-4 thrashing of Texas. He ripped his first two homers of the season, driving in three runs.

But in between several more rounds of loud Arlington boos for new teammate Josh Hamilton, Pujols also was intentionally walked three times as the Rangers clearly preferred to take their chances with Hamilton.

In doing so, he became only the third major-league player ever with three intentional walks and two home runs in a game, following the Mets' David Wright (2007) and Claudell Washington (1980).

Hamilton struck out twice, looking terrible each time, and popped a lazy fly to left in the three plate appearances following the intentional walks.

“Albert dominated today, obviously,” said Hamilton, who now is 1-for-20 with 10 strikeouts this season. “I'd have done the same thing.”

As for his foot, Pujols acknowledged that he has good days and bad days.

He said he has battled plantar fasciitis off and on going back to 2003 or 2004, and he thinks it has flared up earlier this year as a result of favoring his right knee. He had minor surgery on the knee last October to clean up some loose cartilage.

“The knee feels awesome,” Pujols said. “I can't be more happy with how that has come around.

“That's been really, really good.”

From his vantage point, Scioscia said Pujols is running “much better” than he was earlier this spring … or even late last season.

“He came in today and said, ‘Hey, I can play in the field,'” Scioscia said. “But we want to pace him a little bit.”

Following last season's miserable start -- he hit .217 last April -- Pujols came into Saturday's game hitting just .071 (1-for-14) with two RBI and three strikeouts in his first four games.

Saturday's looked like the kind of game that could launch Pujols into one of his patented hot streaks.

“I've been feeling good at the plate the whole spring,” Pujols said. “I'm just trying to get my pitch and put a good swing on it. That's what I did today.”

He's been hitting the ball hard more often than not.

“Sometimes, you hit some holes,” he said. “Sometimes, you get some breaks.”

Pujols spoke with Boston's David Ortiz this spring about ways to approach the DH spot. His key takeaway: On days when he does DH, Pujols intends to cut down on his workload between at-bats.

Last year, he served as the Angels' DH in 34 games, batting .246 with a .299 on-base percentage, four homers and 19 RBI. Worried about staying loose and keeping sharp, Pujols felt like he took too many in-game swings between DH at-bats in the past.

“I was wearing myself out,” he said.

He said he took minimal swings between at-bats on Saturday.

“I pretty much came in and rode the [exercise] bike, relaxed and watched the game,” he said.

Long innings as DH last year were especially difficult for him to gauge. Because, as he took swings in the cage, the longer the inning went, the more swings he would take for fear of stopping and cooling off before his next plate appearance.

Now he thinks he can work smarter.

Given the aches and pains in his legs, he's going to have to.

Scioscia said he'll use Pujols at DH “on an as-needed basis. There are some things you can do from a preventative standpoint. …

“We're going to rotate people through there and keep them fresh. Primarily, we'll keep Albert at first base and Josh in right field on a day-to-day basis, and see what's needed.”

Pujols smiled and admitted that maybe it's a good thing to sometimes get “fresh legs” by DHing.

“Whether I like it or not,” he said, “it's something I have to deal with.”

 
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