A prob­lem with Hous­ton

Scald­ing streak of 15 homers, 30 RBIs in 24 games is rem­i­nis­cent of St. Louis salad days.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Mike DiGiovanna mike. digiovanna@ latimes. com Twit­ter: @ MikeDi­Gio­vanna

The AL West lead­ers romp past the An­gels and man­age to cool off Pu­jols, sort of.

Jerry Dipoto had an inkling Al­bert Pu­jols would have a big year in Fe­bru­ary, when the An­gels f irst base­man be­gan rif ling balls all over the f ield at the team’s spring- train­ing com­plex in Tempe, Ariz.

“From the start of camp, you could see his bat speed, bat plane, the exit speed of the ball off his bat and how easily he was hit­ting those long line drives to cen­ter f ield, left- cen­ter and right­cen­ter,” the An­gels gen­eral man­ager said be­fore Tues­day night’s 13- 3 loss to the Hous­ton Astros.

“Those were things we didn’t re­ally see his f irst three years here. His legs wouldn’t al­low him to do it.”

But this? A 24- game tear in which Pu­jols hit .352 ( 31 for 88) with 15 home runs, 30 runs bat­ted in and four strike­outs be­fore Tues­day? At age 35, and four years and two lower- body in­juries re­moved from an 11- year St. Louis Car­di­nals ca­reer in which he was one of base­ball’s most feared slug­gers?

“No­body could have ex­pected this,” Dipoto said. “He’s been un­be­liev­able for the last month. What’s amaz­ing is this is what he did in his mid- 20s ev­ery month for whole sea­sons. It brought to mind all the things he did in St. Louis.”

Pu­jols had a ca­reer .328 av­er­age, .420 on- base per­cent­age and .617 slug­ging per­cent­age in St. Louis, but he had never hit 15 homers with 30 RBIs in a 24- game stretch in a sin­gle sea­son.

Ac­cord­ing to STATS LLC, Pu­jols, who leads the Amer­i­can League with 23 homers, ranks sec­ond in slug­ging (. 581) and is tied for fifth with 47 RBIs, is the first player in ma­jor league history to hit 15 homers in a 24game span with fewer than five strike­outs.

“He’s show­ing the world why he’ll go down as maybe the great­est right- handed hitter to ever play the game,” said An­gels third base­man David Freese, who played two sea­sons with Pu­jols in St. Louis. “Peo­ple talk about what he did five years ago, 10 years ago . . . this stretch he’s on now is un­real. He’s an ab­so­lute an­i­mal.”

A strong foun­da­tion has been a key. Pu­jols un­der­went right- knee surgery af­ter 2012, his first sea­son with the An­gels, and suf­fered a sea­son- end­ing left- heel tear in late July of 2013.

He had a strong 2014, hit­ting .272 with 28 homers and 105 RBIs, but last win­ter was his first since com­ing to Ana­heim that he did his nor­mal strength and con­di­tion­ing pro­gram with­out re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing from a ma­jor in­jury.

“Health plays a big part in this game,” Freese said. “For power guys, your lower half is im­por­tant in driv­ing the ball. It’s where you gain all your energy, what you use to ham­mer the ball. In the year and a half I’ve been here, this is as ex­plo­sive as I’ve seen Al­bert’s legs.”

Pu­jols hit a game- win­ning grand slam in an eightrun sev­enth in­ning at Oak­land on Fri­day night. He home­red twice in Mon­day night’s win over Hous­ton, his sev­enth- in­ning blast to cen­ter trav­el­ing 438 feet.

Pu­jols wouldn’t go that deep when asked how he’s feel­ing at the plate.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” he said. “I’m just see­ing the ball good, putting my best swing on it. It’s the same thing I’ve been do­ing all year. I’m just get­ting bet­ter breaks, I guess.”

Dipoto said it’s “abso- lutely nuts” how sel­dom Pu­jols strikes out. Al­most as sur­pris­ing is that dur­ing the 24- game stretch he was in­ten­tion­ally walked only three times, twice in Ari­zona last Thurs­day.

But that could change. With run­ners on sec­ond and third and one out in the first in­ning Tues­day night, the Astros walked Pu­jols in­ten­tion­ally, and Freese grounded into a dou­ble play.

“When you have two of the best play­ers in the game, Mike [ Trout] and Al­bert, hit­ting third and fourth, it’s our job as guys who sur­round them to do our part,” Freese said. “These homers aren’t al­ways go­ing to come like they are. Al­bert is go­ing to walk, Mike is go­ing to walk, and we have to pick up the slack.”

One way to pre­vent op­po­nents from pitch­ing around Pu­jols is to have traf­fic on the bases ahead of him.

“If we cre­ate enough in front of him, it’s go­ing to be tough to not pitch to him with­out open­ing up what could be a huge in­ning,” Man­ager Mike Scios­cia said. “But when he’s swing­ing like he is, that’s part of the pro­gram, an oc­ca­sional in­ten­tional walk.”

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

EVEN A HOT Al­bert Pu­jols couldn’t help An­gels on Tues­day.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

I T WAS ALL DOWN­HILL for the An­gels af­ter Car­los Cor­rea’s three- run homer in sec­ond for Astros. Luis Val­buena, Jose Al­tuve ( 27) and Hank Con­ger liked it too.

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