There's still life in 'sluggish' Albert Pujols

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Geez, we're in a hurry to decide Albert Pujols is over with.

Just like David Ortiz before him. Follow the day-to-day, and Mariano Rivera has been losing so much ground for so long it's a wonder he hasn't moon-walked himself back to Panama by now.

Remember when Miguel Cabrera would never be the hitter he once was? That was two years ago. Unless it was 3 ½ years ago. Folks had two shots at that.

Lance Berkman was done. Ryan Braun was exposed and ruined. Jason Giambi would never play again. Miguel Tejada was too old, Raul Ibanez was even older, Alex Gordon was a bust, A.J. Burnett couldn't hack it, Kyle Lohse wouldn't amount to anything, Jeremy Guthrie had fizzled out.

We've become the I-told-you-so generation. So we wait for Bryce Harper to maim himself running into a beer vendor, or Tim Lincecum to turn to cinders on a mound, or Derek Jeter to stab at a grounder with his walker, or Albert Pujols to hit .224 for a month, and that's that. He's over with. Told you so.

So Pujols shows up to work Tuesday batting a mortal .241. He gets his knee treated. His foot treated. He can't talk early because he has to go to the indoor batting cage under Angel Stadium. Then, and only then, he has a few minutes between indoor hitting and outdoor hitting, both in the hours before real hitting.

Yes, it's another clunky start for the most skilled hitter in the game before it became Miguel Cabrera's turn. It's hard to watch him run. He's probably best suited for designated-hitter until his knee and foot heal, admitting Tuesday he was feeling "sluggish," his way of revealing his legs weren't quite under him, though he can't ever be sure until he gets to the park and initiates his routine.

He knew this winter his knee would need seven to nine months to recover fully. He knew an achy knee would irritate any lingering foot issues. He knew this would be an important season.

"The only way I wouldn't play," he says, "is if you chopped my leg off."

It's no fun, but there's also no alternative. His dad told him years ago that you play and you don't complain and you don't make excuses. You just play. And people will call you The Machine and you'll win batting titles and Most Valuable Player awards. Or they will call you washed up and, at 33, irrelevant.

Well, the Angels have been an awful disappointment and Pujols has done nothing to turn an atrocious starting rotation or a defenseless bullpen into anything presentable. He's endured a poor start, batting .241 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs. Almost, in fact, as poor of a start as last season's, when on the same date he was batting .212 with three home runs and 18 RBIs and then finished at .285 with 30 homers and 105 RBIs.

So, shouldn't we wait until he's irrelevant before we decide he's irrelevant? He's not the team. He's on the team. He's come out slow, again. Three-quarters of the season is sitting out there, waiting, and Albert Pujols, his eyes dark and defiant, is game.

Give him the at-bats, stay out of the way, play the season and then decide. Maybe, at the end, he's that guy, the more familiar guy who over his career has been at his most productive after June 1. Maybe not. Maybe it's impossible to know – or even guess – in the third week of May.

"Mark the day, the 21st of May, the day that I tell you that when I can no longer play this game, I won't stick around," Pujols says. "Trust me, I'm not going to stick around. People might say, 'He wouldn't leave that money behind.' "

He sneers.

"It's not the money," he says. "My goal is to try to get this club to the postseason. That's it."

The rest is noise, he says. Noise he barely hears.

"I don't read whether it's good or bad," he says. "Besides, I'm pretty sure a lot of people said I was done last year."

He batted .326 in June, .330 in July, .312 in August.

Pujols is prideful. He can be emotionally taut. He can appear distant, unapproachable. But this is the route he takes every day, the one that made him the best hitter in the game until he wasn't, until someone took that away.

The Angels will have something to say about his broader relevance. In the meantime, Pujols will get by with what he has, he'll survive it, he'll hit, and the pain will come and go.

"Obviously, it's not a place you want to be," Pujols says of the Angels, who were 10 games under .500 before being served Aaron Harang on Tuesday night. "It's not the end of the world, either. How many games we have left? That's a lot of freakin' games. You gonna tell me we can't win 80 games out of 120?"

He smiles.

"You never know, man," he says.

What's left then was to hit some more. He pulls himself out of his chair, flips a water bottle into the trash, promises he's going to hit. When he does, he won't say it, but you can be sure he'll be thinking it.

Told you so.

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