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Lyle Spencer

Pujols thrives as Trout, Hunter take off the pressure

Spencer: Pujols thrives as Trout, Torii headline

Pujols thrives as Trout, Hunter take off the pressure
ANAHEIM -- The Year of the Trout has been fit for a king.

As Mike Trout, the game's new fresh prince, has been stealing bases, home runs and hearts with his inspired play for the Angels, Albert Pujols -- King Albert himself -- has reaped side benefits, both tangible and intangible in nature.

Trout (.395 on-base percentage) and Hunter (.359) have created plentiful run-producing opportunities for Pujols. The slugger has rebounded from an abysmal start to put up power numbers befitting a king: 30 homers, 102 RBIs with eight games left in the Angels' postseason quest.

Almost as important as their table-setting work for Pujols has been the attention directed away from Albert by the charismatic Trout and Hunter, one of the game's brightest ambassadors.

Pujols, for all his talents and iconic status, is no media magnet along the lines of Hunter. The first baseman keeps a strict routine and doesn't particularly enjoy the daily repartee with media types. Surely, he would not have appreciated having to dissect his first two months as an Angel on a regular basis.

Having landed in a mid-sized media market, in Orange County, he avoided that aggravation with the assistance of Trout and Hunter.

What Trout did, when he arrived on April 28, was immediately shift the focus from the veteran superstar to the beaming new face atop that powerful, incredibly swift chassis. Pujols' struggles became a sidebar to the lead story, the incredible exploits of Trout.

Consider: Pujols was homerless through his first 27 games as an Angel. He entered May, having played 23 games, hitting .217 with a .570 OPS (on-base plus slugging). His career numbers, respectively, are .325 and 1.024.

Bottoming out at .190 on May 8, Pujols began a gradual climb back. He finally reached .250 on June 9 during a three-game Interleague series in Colorado, going 6-for-13 with a homer, three doubles and five RBIs. Albert finally was regaining his mojo -- two months into the season.

Imagine if this had happened in New York or Boston, with their ravenous media. Imagine what it would have been like without Trout tearing it up, attracting national attention, and Hunter serving as the virtual team spokesman, handling the daily media obligations.

Those bold "Is Albert Done?" headlines never really surfaced. He was able to get back in his groove in relative solitude, the way he seems to prefer to function in the best of times.

Pujols was back to being Pujols by the end of June, hitting .326 for the month with a .977 OPS. Those numbers climbed to .330 and 1.071 in July, .312 and 1.027 in August.

He has slowed a bit in September, hitting .282 with a .762 OPS. But he has gone 7-for-15 with six RBIs in the past four games, delivering when it's needed most.

Pujols, bothered by a calf ailment sustained on Aug. 22 that limited him to designated-hitter duty for 16 games, scaled the familiar 30-homer summit on Sept. 12 against the Athletics at Angel Stadium.

This lifted him into a tie with Stan Musial and Willie Stargell on the all-time home run list, at No. 28, with 475. Musial was The Man in St. Louis long before Pujols arrived, and No. 5 articulated his respect for No. 6.

"Any time you get your name named along with Stan Musial and other guys, it's just a privilege and an honor," Pujols said. "Being able to have the opportunity to have conversations with Stan and the respect I have for him, I thank God for him and the ability to be able to do it.

"But at the same time, I don't play for milestones. My goal is to try to help this organization to win."

Pujols, at 32, is the first player in history to launch a career with 12 consecutive seasons of 30 or more home runs and the fourth player to do it at any career juncture, joining Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Jimmie Foxx.

"I don't like to compare myself with other players -- that's for you guys to do," Pujols said. "It's because of the respect that I have for the game and that's the way that my dad always taught me. 'Don't take anything for granted and always respect the game the right way.'"

His unproductive first two months made it virtually impossible for Pujols to live up to his own lofty standards. His season slash line of .288/.346/.525 does not measure up to his career line of .325/.416/.609.

The biggest statistical decline is in his strikeouts-to-walks ratio, reflective in part of learning a new league in a new environment. He has 49 walks and 68 strikeouts. His 162-game career averages are 90 walks and 68 strikeouts.

"He's [about] 45 points behind his career average and [about] 60 points behind his career on-base percentage, and we've seen how good he is," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, underscoring how unreal Pujols' career numbers are.

Pujols, whose wife, Deidre, presented him with a baby daughter on Sept. 16, values what teammates in his new professional family have been doing for him.

"I obviously have accomplished what I have accomplished because of my teammates getting on base," he said, "and being able to put on good swings. But I don't try to concentrate on that, because at the end of the day, it's not just about me.

"I try to make sure that I get my attention off me and make sure that I put it somewhere else where it belongs."

The King appreciates his court, led by Trout and Hunter -- the fresh prince in center field and the ambassador in right.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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