The two biggest free-agent signings prior to the 2012 season are gradually turning things around after slow starts.
Their teams, however, are still looking up in their respective division races.
Pujols and Fielder spent the past half-dozen years regularly squaring off as NL Central rivals and last October, Pujols’ St. Louis Cardinals defeated Fielder’s Milwaukee Brewers in the league championship series en route to a World Series title. The elite first basemen both bolted for the AL in January, as Pujols signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels (49-40) and Fielder inked a nine-year, $219 million deal to play for the Tigers (46-43).
After some early struggles, both sluggers are now playing better.
Pujols, who didn’t hit his first homer until May 6, is batting a career-low .271 with 15 home runs and 53 RBIs. However, he’s gone deep three times in his last nine games, including a solo shot in Sunday’s 10-8 win over the New York Yankees to help the Angels salvage the finale of a three-game set.
Los Angeles has dropped seven of 13 and is five games behind West-leading Texas, but controls the league’s first wild-card spot.
Detroit trails Baltimore by one-half game for the second wild card and Chicago by 3 1/2 for the Central lead, but is surging with seven wins in its last eight games.
Fielder singled to extend his hitting streak to 11 games and scored in Sunday’s 4-0 victory over the Orioles. The four-time All-Star, who had three homers and 11 RBIs at the end of a sluggish April, is now batting .301 with 15 homers and 64 RBIs - sixth-most in the AL.
The only time Fielder faced the Angels came in June 2010, and he went 1 for 10 with four walks. That lone hit, however, was a two-run homer off Ervin Santana (4-9, 5.75 ERA), the scheduled Los Angeles starter for Monday.
A 17-game winner two years ago, Santana owns the AL’s third-worst ERA and has yielded at least five runs in five of his last seven starts. His last outing before the All-Star break was a disaster, as he was shelled for eight runs and retired only four batters in a 12-3 loss to Cleveland on July 4.
“We need Ervin to pick it up,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “He’s a guy we’re counting on in our rotation. We’ve got to get him back on that beam.”
Facing the Tigers could be just what Santana needs, considering he has posted a 2.01 ERA in winning his last four starts in the series, but he hasn’t faced them since 2009.
That was also the last year Pujols played against Detroit. In 13 career games versus the Tigers, he is batting .488 - easily his highest against any team - with four homers and a .604 on-base percentage.
Pujols has never faced probable Detroit starter Rick Porcello (6-5, 4.47), but several of his teammates have - with limited success. Alberto Callaspo is batting .176 in 17 at-bats, Erick Aybar is hitting .154 in 13 and Howie Kendrick is 2 for 12.
Torii Hunter is 3 for 9 with a homer off Porcello, but his status is uncertain after being out of the starting lineup the last two games with a sore groin.
Porcello, who has won his last three starts against the Angels, hasn’t pitched since Detroit’s 7-3 win over Minnesota on July 5. The right-hander permitted a career high-tying 12 hits in 3 2-3 innings, allowing three runs.
He is 2-1 with a 2.28 ERA in his last four starts overall, and the Tigers have won six of his last eight outings.