Albert Pujols clings to hope of Cardinals-style miracle amid disappointing season with Angels

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ANAHEIM, Calif. – Her name is Esther Grace, a dark-eyed beauty with a hint of a smile. Her photo arrived to Albert Pujols' phone Thursday morning, four days after her birth.

"Imagine," he said, "if I'd missed that."

He'd stayed back in Kansas City, welcomed Esther Grace to the family, and rejoined the Los Angeles Angels in time for Wednesday night's game against the Texas Rangers. He had a couple singles, ran into an out, got a touch aggressive on a defensive play that extended an inning for the Rangers, and the Angels lost.

By Thursday morning he'd again feel the pang of distance, though the photo helped some. Esther makes five for the Pujols.

"Look at her," he said, falling in love again.

Pujols nears the end of his first season in Anaheim. At best six weeks remain. More likely, there aren't even two. The Angels have been terribly disappointing to those who bought into the promise of adding Pujols (along with C.J. Wilson) to an already reasonably constructed team, which included nearly everyone. They lost again Thursday night.

They fight now to put off what appears to be the inevitable – that is, explaining to owner Arte Moreno why his ballpark and investment again will be empty come October. There's season left, so they play and they hope. They try not to think about what put them in this place or the odds against them making something more of it. Meanwhile, they run short of time.

"You know what," Pujols said, "the reality is I don't think about that. It's 162 games. Until you're out of this stuff, you're not out."

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His is a curious place among them. Their failure will be viewed as his, fairly or not. He is the great Pujols, after all, who'd lifted the mid-market St. Louis Cardinals to not one World Series title, but two. Moreno would bring him to Anaheim, blacktop the franchise's ruts with Pujols and payroll, and ride – or will – the whole thing into late October.

The bullpen was too thin all along, the rotation sagged midseason, and yet it was Pujols who was batting .216 on April 29, when the Angels' record was 7-15, and Pujols who was batting .212 on May 21, when their record was 18-25. It is the nature of the game that Pujols' .315 batting average since, his .993 OPS, 27 homers and 78 RBIs in 99 games since, could be viewed as something less than capable. Less than Pujols-ian.

"He's been there for us, definitely," manager Mike Scioscia said Thursday afternoon. "That's not what's put us in the predicament of trying to make up ground."

Taken as a whole, Pujols' first year as an Angel has not met the standards of his previous 11 seasons. His batting average, slugging and on-base percentages will be the lowest of his career, barring an offensively gluttonous final dozen games.

Like the Angels, he had played back from near disaster, just perhaps not quite far enough. They will not catch the Rangers, and therefore will not win the AL West. They are 4½ games behind the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles for a wild-card berth, and now must hope for a catastrophic losing streak from either.

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Pujols nodded along to the seemingly bad news, half in the conversation and half wishing to avoid such dark thoughts. Playing for a new team – and in a new city he wished to impress – had momentarily triggered big-swing bad habits, he said. The rest has been a long, slow, daily climb to 30 home runs, 96 RBIs and a .283 batting average. He found solace and strength in his routine. His teammates were good to him. Since the All-Star break, he ranks fourth in the American League in OPS, fourth in home runs and fifth in RBIs, some of that through a calf injury that nags him still.

It's OK. Not great. And not him, or what was expected of him.

"My responsibility is the same since I started wearing a professional uniform," he said. "I do what I can do to help this organization win. For a while, I struggled. I wasn't myself."

He paused, as if to bury the memory.

"This game, you have to enjoy it whether it's good or bad," he said. "If everything was always roses and beautiful, I don't think I could have done what I've done in the game. And this" – he waved his hand across a full clubhouse – "is not about just myself. As an organization, we win and lose together.

"If it comes to it we don't make it to the postseason, we're going to be disappointed. But people were saying the same thing about [the St. Louis Cardinals] with 20 games left. When we got to the end of the year, I was laughing and raising the trophy."

It's not much now, but it's what they have. It's what he has.

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That is, an odd season in which the parts do not make up enough of a whole. The Angels lost Thursday night for the sixth time in 10 games, this time by a score of 3-1. With two out and two strikes against him in the bottom of the ninth inning, Pujols had lashed a line drive into right-center field. The people streaming into the tunnels toward the Angel Stadium parking lots froze. They turned in time to watch Pujols pull into second base, then lingered long enough to see Kendrys Morales fly out to left field.

The promise, the season, even Pujols, they're drifting away now. Nobody wanted this. Perhaps Pujols least of all.

They'd all so hoped for roses and beautiful.

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