TEMPE, Az. For the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this spring, the hype has been about Albert Pujols.
The hope, for the Angels, has been for Kendrys Morales.
So far, so good.
And it got even better on Thursday afternoon.
Morales, out since fracturing his lower left leg in a home late celebration of a May 29, 2010 walk-off grand slam against Seattle, faced big-league pitching in a game for the first time in 661 days, and passed every test he was given, including showing no hesitation to run the bases and slide.
"This was a real step I wanted to take today," Morales, a Cuban defector, said through an interpreter.
Pujols continued to do what the Angels want him to do after giving him a 10-year, 240 million free-agent contract to lure him from St. Louis to provide a major offensive influx, doubling home a run in a four-run second of the 7-4 victory against Kansas City, leaving his average at .364.
And Morales started to do what the Angels hope he can once again do. After suffering a leg injury severe enough that a second operation was performed last May, he went 2-for-3 with two singles in his return, including one that led off the four-run second.
"The lineup with (Morales) is different," Pujols said. "Let's see how it goes. We just wish him good health."
The Angles certainly hope so. They felt all along they had the rotation to knock off two-time defending AL pennant winner Texas in the AL West, but the offense has been suspect, particularly the last two years.
Pujols has a rsum that creates Hall of Fame expectations. He is a three-time NL MVP, having finished in the top five in the NL MVP voting in 10 of his 11 seasons with St. Louis, having to settle for ninth place in 2007. He's never hit fewer than 32 home runs in those 11 seasons, and the 99 runs he drove in last year with the Cardinals was the fewest of his career.
Morales has some potential, too, which is why the Angels are so anxious to get this season started.
"The last couple of years we have been a pitching-oriented organization," said right-hander Jered Weaver. "Now we bring in Kendrys and Pujols. It looks good on paper. Now we have to make it work on the field."
The number crunching tells the story.
In 2009, when Morales played his one full season in the big leagues, and finished fifth in AL MVP Voting, he hit .366 with 34 home runs and 108 RBI. The Angels won the AL West and finished second to the Yankees in runs scored with 883.
With Morales appearing in only 51 games before his injury in 2010 kept him sidelined all the way through 2011, the Angels finished second to the Rangers both times, and the offense was offensive. They finished ninth in the AL with 681 runs scored in 2010, and 10th with 667 runs in 2011.
This year, with Pujols hitting third and the switch-hitting Morales hitting cleanup?
"I don't know if I will make that big of a difference," Morales said. "I am part of the group. Together we can all work to make the team good."
The work, however, is easier with the addition of Pujols and return of Morales.
"It gives us a different look," said manager Mike Scioscia.
There was certainly a different feel around the Angles clubhouse on Thursday, even if it was only an exhibition game.
"The guys are excited," said Scioscia. "He's one of those guys that I think a lot of guys on our team rally around. He's one of the most popular guys in the clubhouse, so guys are excited. But we're going to be excited if it's April 6 that he's in the lineup."
That was apparent when Morales got his first at-bat, in the second inning.
"The guys (on the bench) screamed a couple things at me, but they were in Spanish things that we cannot say in public," Morales said with a big smile.
He did not drive the ball like he expects to against the Royals, but that's the least of his concerns.
I have played with him since the High-A (level of the minor leagues)," said Weaver, "and he is a see ball, hit ball kind of guy. It doesn't take him long to figure it out."
Morales shook his head in agreement with that assessment.
"I think it will take me five or six games and I'll be fine," he said.
The big concern was answered quickly. It was how Morales would react when he had to run hard and slide. In the second inning, after his single, he went first to third on a Bobby Abreu double, sliding into third without hesitation. And in the fifth inning, after he singled to center, he had to slide into second on Abreu's fielder's choice ground ball.
"Everybody was waiting for me to play a big-league game, and I did that today," he said. "It had been (nearly) two years. I will be ready opening day and I will be happy about that."
The Angels couldn't agree more.