Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 5/14/12
Perhaps you heard: El Hombre is El Stinko. A month and a half into his first year playing for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Albert Pujols might as well be Mario Mendoza. The 240 million man has so far hit only one home run as he nears 150 at-bats. He's batting below .200 and slugging below .300. Among the not-so-illustrious names with better 2012 power numbers than Pujols are Chone Figgins and Gerardo Parra. As you would guess, especially considering that their well-regarded pitching staff has pitched like a very ordinary pitching staff, the much-hyped Angels are dead last in the American League West. Across the diamond this weekend stood the other team that vied for the "most talented team in the American League" tag going into this season: the two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers. The Rangers' 2012 narrative is the opposite of the Angels'. They're one of the hottest teams out of the gates, leading all of baseball in batting average and runs scored and leading the AL in staff ERA. And Josh Hamilton is swinging the bat like a man possessed, tying a big-league record with 18 home runs in his team's first 34 games. As you would guess, all this adds up to first place in the American League West. To which Pujols responded: So what? "It's just part of the game," Pujols told FOXSports.com, speaking of the Angels' and his own early season struggles. "It doesn't matter how you start. It's how you finish. Panic? One hundred and sixty-two games, you don't panic. This is a game you enjoy. You don't panic. You play 162 games, and you try to make the playoffs." And on that topic, Pujols is in luck. For those who start slowly, baseball is the most forgiving of sports. More than any other, baseball is a sport of streakiness and momentum, so slow starts mean only that: a start. In the NFL, an 0-4 start means missing the playoffs; in fact, only one team in NFL history, the 1992 San Diego Chargers, made the playoffs after an 0-4 start. In baseball, though, a rough start means about the same as a hot start. It's either bad news or good news, but it's not time to pop the corks or throw in the towel during this most grinding of seasons. Since the team that's hottest in May often isn't the team that's hottest in October, starting slow out of the gate is an obstacle that's surmountable. Consider the past few seasons. In mid-May 2011, the Cleveland Indians were the hottest team in the American League, the Marlins were only one game out of their division lead, and the Arizona Diamondbacks were in last place over in the National League West. By October the Indians had finished below .500, the Marlins had finished in last and the Diamondbacks had won 94 games and made the playoffs. In 2010, the Atlanta Braves were last in their division on May 15; they made the playoffs. And perhaps most dramatically, two of the hottest teams in baseball on May 15, 2009 were the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets. The Jays finished fourth in the AL East, 12 games below .500, and the Mets finished fourth in the NL East, 22 games below .500. "It's May we don't really care about what the division looks like now," Rangers infielder Michael Young told FOXSports.com. "We just make sure we're focusing on ourselves. The Angels have a lot of talent. . . . (The Angels' struggles) are really not that big a deal. At some point, good players start playing like good players. There's not a player out there who wouldn't love to get off to a hot start, but the biggest thing to do is to keep battling through the season and keep pounding away." In other words, Hamilton won't continue hitting a home run seemingly every other at bat, and Pujols won't keep hitting about one homer a month. But the bigger concern with the Angels, whose payroll ranks fourth in baseball, has less to do with the fact they're in last place and more to do with the way they've found themselves there. The first game of last week's three-game series with the Rangers was a case in point. As Pujols looked lost at the plate an 0-for-4 night that included two weak foul outs, a swinging strikeout on a fastball well out of the strike zone and a soft roller to first on a check swing the Angels looked lost in the field. A grounder was bumbled by second baseman Howie Kendrick; Kendrick hurried a throw to an unsuspecting Pujols at first, who didn't put up his glove in time and saw the ball sail over his head. The always-reliable Torii Hunter missed the cutoff man on a throw home, allowing a runner to advance from first to second. Three fly balls to the outfield could have been caught but weren't. The Angels looked worse than simply a talented team that has found itself in last place because of a bounce here or a missed opportunity there. They looked like a team whose wheels had come off way too early. If they're going to turn things around, it will mean they turn around the tenor of their losses, not just their number of losses. "Right now, we've been a little spotty," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "When you have a slow start, you start moving into inconsistent play, and it keeps going. There's a confidence level a team needs to acquire. . . . We're not there yet." Luckily for them, it's baseball. We're only a fifth of the way through the season, plenty of time for bad teams to go on a hot streak and for good teams to see their fortunes go south. If you think the Angels will be in last place when it's September crunch time or that the Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies will still be duking it out at the bottom of the NL East, or that the Baltimore Orioles will still be in first and the Boston Red Sox will still be in last in the AL East well, there's this bridge in Brooklyn that I've been looking to unload. "Once the first half of the season is up, you evaluate, you see where you're at in the standings, see where you're at personally," Hunter told FOXSports.com. "Now, we're not looking at the standings. We're professionals. We got guys down here like Pujols, like me, like LaTroy (Hawkins). We can tell (the younger players), Man, this is early. You can't get caught up in it.' " And then Hunter pointed this out: His Angels may be in last, but they've been playing better lately. On April 29 they were 7-15, nine games out of first. Since then, the Angels have gone 8-5. They're starting to get their groove back. "Think about how we started out," Hunter said with a smile, "and we're sitting pretty." Last place after 30-plus games? Only in baseball could that be considered sitting pretty. You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.
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