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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Drive to always improve keeps Pujols in top tier

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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

ARLINGTON -- To the people who know Albert Pujols best, it's not his strength or quickness or even his plate discipline that dazzles them. Yes, it's true he almost never takes a bad swing and never looks off balance. He seems so locked in and so confident that it's easy to assume the game simply comes easy for him.

When his teammates and managers talk about him, they almost always begin with some example of his relentless work ethic, attention to detail and commitment to improve. Angels manager Mike Scioscia was reminded of it the day after Opening Day when Pujols used a scheduled day off to spend a couple of hours in the batting cage and weight room at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.

"First of all, there's not many players I've ever seen that understand their own swing the way Albert does," Scioscia said. "He takes countless swings in the cage, just trying to make sure he's in tune with it. He's works very hard at maintaining it. That's how he's going to stay good."

Scioscia was speaking at the end of a day when Pujols reminded us why he's one of the great players of this generation, not just a great player in terms of production, but a great player in just about every way.

He homered twice Saturday afternoon -- the 476th and 477th of his career -- while serving as the Angels' designated hitter in an 8-4 victory over the Rangers. Both times, Texas pitchers allowed 91-mph fastballs to catch too much of the plate, and Pujols made them pay.

He hit a two-run shot off Rangers starter Matt Harrison in the first inning and then got reliever Jason Frasor for a solo home run in the sixth. Those two home runs, his first two of the season, came on an afternoon when the Rangers also intentionally walked him three times to get to Josh Hamilton.

Meanwhile, Hamilton struck out twice and flied out twice to drop his batting average to .050 in his first week with his new club. Last April, it was Pujols going through some of the same struggles as he tried to get off to a fast start with a new team.

He didn't hit his first home run until the Angels' 29th game of the season and didn't hit his second until the 38th. He still finished with 50 doubles and 30 home runs and understands what Hamilton is going through.

"Obviously, I wanted a great start coming to a new ballclub," Pujols said. "I told you guys toward the end of last season, maybe I put a little pressure on myself. I tried to chase a ball out of the strike zone, tried to do too much."

It's funny how things change. Mike Trout was so dazzling in his rookie season and then the Angels hauled in Hamilton in free agency that Pujols was almost overlooked at times.

That's an incredible thing for a guy who pretty much punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame in 11 seasons with the Cardinals. He won a Rookie of the Year Award and was the National League Most Valuable Player three times. He showed again and again that he had the ability to carry a team in a way few players ever have.

And then came one lousy month and the Angels' missing the postseason. Did last season's slow start motivate him more than usual?

"It always seems like when people doubted me, I like to prove people wrong," he said. "I've been doing that since my first day they gave me the opportunity to become a professional. They said I wasn't going to be in the big leagues. I keep proving people wrong. Every competitor is like that. You don't get too caught up. I love to let my work talk for myself. It's a long season. I never lost that focus. I know what I can do. I know I can play this game."

One of the first things his Cardinals manager, Tony La Russa, noticed about the young Pujols is how he watched everything and asked questions of veterans like Larry Walker, Placido Polanco and others.

"All those guys, they taught me a lot about this game," Pujols said. "Watching guys around the leagues always helps you out. When you play against the best guys in the game, you always love to pick hints from them and ask questions. That's something I always did. I still do it. Thirteen years in the league, it never gets old. I always believe you have room to improve. I don't think I take anything for granted."

Knowing he would get some days at designated hitter this season, he asked David Ortiz for advice. Among the tips -- stay loose and don't take too many swings in the cage before going to the plate.

Now about that off-day in Cincinnati.

"Not that I needed to go take some swings," he said. "We had a day off on Sunday and [played] one game and then another day off. My body felt good to just go to the ballpark instead of staying in the hotel and getting fat watching TV. I thought a little workout wouldn't hurt."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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