Slow starts don't faze some of game's top stars

Slow starts don't faze some of game's top stars

Slow starts don't faze some of game's top stars
The Machine has been malfunctioning. One of the Yankees' top sluggers has yet to send a "Tex message." The Freak has Giants fans freaking out. Heath Bell has gotten his rung.

In other words, we're already well into April. What's going on with some of baseball's slumping stars?

In Southern California, all eyes are on Albert Pujols, who signed for 10 years and $240 million, looked great in Spring Training and hasn't yet gone yard through his first 11 games of the 2012 regular season. That's not the only reason the Angels started out 4-7, but it hasn't helped.

The good news for Angels fans is that slow starts aren't new for Pujols. Last year, he posted a .755 OPS in the first two months, improved that to .997 from June to September, and we all remember what he and the St. Louis Cardinals did in October.

Pundits made the assumption that the failed contract extension talks with the Cardinals last year that ultimately led to Pujols bolting to the Angels in the offseason might have taken away some of his early-season mojo in 2011. This year, the popular theory is that the pressure to live up to the huge contract is behind the slump.

The words "inevitable" and "decline" have been kicked around of late when analyzing Pujols' meek current stats, and the fact that he turned 32 in January, but Pujols did not become the greatest hitter of his generation by panicking during dry spells.

"Listen, it's not being cocky, but I know I can hit," Pujols said recently. "I showed that in the spring, I've shown that for 11 years, and I don't think that's going to go away [instantly]."

And as for homers, Pujols said he'll continue to do what he always does: not even think about trying to hit them.

"You can't think about home runs," Pujols said. "You have to think about seeing the ball and trying to put a good swing on it. You can hit one, and then you have five or six that same week. Home runs come in bunches, so I don't worry about that. I've been in this situation before."

And so has Mark Teixeira. Playing in the sweltering spotlight of the Bronx puts pressure on a player, and while the man they call "Tex" has handled it with gracious ease over the course of his first three seasons in pinstripes, the fourth has gotten off to a rocky beginning.

Entering Wednesday, Teixeira was batting .250, and like Pujols, he was homerless. Not surprisingly, New Yorkers are growing impatient, and so is Teixeira.

"I want to be hitting line drives and home runs," Teixeira said Sunday night. "I feel really good up there. If you're not hitting home runs, it's about finding holes. I'm feeling really good. I'm feeling good in the cages and in batting practice. I know they're going to start coming."

He should feel that way, because he struggles pretty much every April. A quick look at Teixeira's history shows that he's hit .238 in the first month of the season throughout his career and has put up his lowest offensive totals across the board in the early part of the year. Another quick look shows that he always rebounds. Teixeira still finished last year -- a down year for him --with 39 homers and 111 RBIs.

"Tex is a notoriously slow starter," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We've been through this before, and he's put up some pretty good years. For me, I don't get too worried about 30 at-bats. It's something you're going to see hitters go through. If they go through it in the middle of the year, you're not going to say much. If they go through at the beginning of the year, it's a glaring stat and people are really concerned. I think you've got to let things play out here a little bit."

That statement can apply to Tim Linececum, too. The Giants' two-time National League Cy Young Award winner took another loss in his most recent start and has a season record of 0-2 and an ERA of 10.54. He also has shown what many observers are considering an alarming drop in velocity, with his typical fastball coming in at about 90-91 mph.

Then again, after giving up four runs in the first inning of his latest start, which came against Philadelphia, Lincecum only allowed one run over the next five innings and struck out six while walking one. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it seemed like a step in the right direction.

"It's easy to say when things start falling off in that first inning, 'Here we go again,'" Lincecum said. "But I tried my best to put a stop to that and pitch better from the second inning on. That's pretty much what I can take from this outing -- that my last five or so innings were good -- and I'm going to try to feed off of that."

Bell would happily say, "Amen" to that.

Bell, who was one of the premier closers in baseball for San Diego in 2010 and '11, signed a big contract with the Miami Marlins and promptly blew two saves in his first four appearances, logging a 12.00 ERA. But instead of accepting it and figuring that things would eventually even out, Bell looked for answers ... and might have discovered them.

"I found exactly what I was doing," said Bell, who, along with Marlins pitching coach Randy St. Claire, watched a full year of video. "I was just jumping a little too much and [my pitches] were flat. We made the adjustment, and I had the downward angle again."

Bell entered Tuesday's game against the Cubs in a save situation, pitched a perfect inning with one strikeout, and logged his first save of the season. Miami sighed.

For Bell -- and maybe soon in the cases of Pujols and Teixeira and Lincecum -- things could very well become normal again.

"It's about fixing it," Lincecum said, "and getting it right."

Doug Miller is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.