video thumbnail

Pujols on managing high expectations for Angels

ANAHEIM -- Who's on first? On Opening Night at Angel Stadium, you'll find Albert Pujols, the game's best in his long-awaited Angels debut, and the Royals' Eric Hosmer, who someday might assume King Albert's throne.

As individual matchups go coming out of the chute, they couldn't get much more appealing than the $240 million man vs. the Kansas City kid with the million-dollar stroke.

Opening Day pitching assignments go to two-time Angels All-Star Jered Weaver -- second in the 2011 American League Cy Young Award balloting to Tigers ace Justin Verlander -- and well-traveled Royals southpaw Bruce Chen.

Pujols, a reigning World Series champion intent on lifting his new club back into prominence after two quiet Octobers in a row, spent his first spring in Arizona wearing out baseballs and the men who send them his way.

The former Cardinals icon has amazed new teammates with his work ethic and made them comfortable with his willingness to blend right in and be part of the group. No superstar attitude here.

Pujols' impact can be seen in a confident new edge in the clubhouse. It's a lot easier to have a confident swagger when you have the heavyweight champ on your side.

"The game doesn't change," Pujols said, knowing everything else -- team, league, opposing pitchers and ballparks -- has. "When I got into the big leagues in 2001, I didn't know anyone in the National League, so that's how I'm going to take it. It's a different league, but I came in in 2001 and didn't know any pitchers around the league.

"With the technology and the scouting right now, you get some good feedback and you'll be able to ask guys questions and go by the scouting reports. And being in the NL, I was able to face guys in Interleague [Play], so I've seen some of the guys in the past.

"It's going to be a little bit different, but as far as playing the game, I don't think anything's different -- besides we have a DH in the American League."

The Angels' primary DH, Kendrys Morales, is making his return after missing a season and two-thirds with two surgeries on his left ankle. Morales, fifth in the 2009 AL MVP balloting, breaks up a righty-heavy lineup with his ability to hit left-handed as well as from the right side.

Pujols has been impressed with the talent around him, notably table-setters Erick Aybar and Howard Kendrick. Both have had tremendous springs.

Hosmer, who gave a preview of coming attractions last season, was just as lethal in the Cactus League as Pujols, gratifying insiders who have been projecting greatness in him for several years. Hosmer swings from the left side, but he generates the same kind of bat speed and noise as the legend.

The Royals are chock full of young talent ready to bust loose, but they'll be missing two of their most valuable players for a spell. A spring that held luminous promise got much darker all of a sudden.

Salvador Perez, one of the game's most impressive young catchers with eye-popping talent and desire to match, had surgery on torn cartilage in his left knee. He could be sidelined until mid-July. Perez's shoes are close to impossible to fill, but Brayan Pena and Humberto Quintero will give it their best effort.

Closer Joakim Soria had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and is lost for the season. The ninth inning could be handled by a committee of former Dodgers finisher Jonathan Broxton, Aaron Crow and Greg Holland -- or the best of the trio.

"They were big hits, no doubt about it," manager Ned Yost said of the injuries. "But you can't dwell on it, you can't worry about it. You just move on."

The youthful KC cornerstones are Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas, and they're surrounded by quality all over the diamond.

Replacing Melky Cabrera, dealt to the Giants for starter Jonathan Sanchez, is Lorenzo Cain, who brings power, speed and athleticism to center field between Gold Glover Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur.

Hosmer, who debuted with 19 homers, 78 RBIs and a .293 average, is in the No. 3 slot. Moustakas, who hit .379 in his last 36 games after a .182 start in Kansas City, will hit sixth, sometimes fifth in the right matchup.

"It's a lot of pressure on 'em," Yost said. "They can handle it."

Hosmer, 22, and Moustakas, 23, could lead a multiyear run summoning memories of the George Brett-led golden era of the '80s. Brett was a daily presence in Spring Training, sharing his hard-earned wisdom.

"That's the great thing about George," Moustakas said. "He loves those World Series memories, he loves those playoff memories, and he wants nothing more than to have this organization get back to those glory days. We're all excited, we're all in this together and we feel like we have a chance to do that."

Royals: Chen makes it all the way back
• Chen, making his first career Opening Night start, is a study in perseverance. His career was at a crossroads after he had Tommy John surgery in 2007, missing the '08 season. The Royals gave him a shot in '09, and he became their top winner with 12 victories the past two seasons. A free agent both years, he rewarded the team's loyalty by coming back.

• KC catalyst Gordon has been a tough out for Weaver with a .444 career on-base percentage in 18 at-bats. Gordon is hitting .286 vs. Weaver with one homer and three RBIs.

Angels: Weaver has Opening Night history
• Weaver is making his third consecutive start in the season opener and fourth of his career. He held the Royals scoreless for 6 1/3 innings on two hits in Kansas City last year and beat the Twins in the 2010 opener at home, giving up three runs in six innings. He lost in Minnesota in '08, yielding three runs in 6 1/3 innings.

• Chen has had his problems with Pujols (.375, two homers in eight at-bats); Kendrick (.429, two homers, seven at-bats); Bobby Abreu (.409, seven RBIs, 22 at-bats); and Vernon Wells (.316, three homers, seven RBIs in 19 at-bats).

Worth noting:
• Weaver won his first six starts last season en route to a career-high 18 wins, starting the All-Star Game for the American League.

• Chen, in his 14th season, is pitching for his 10th Major League team: Braves, Phillies, Mets, Expos, Reds, Astros, Red Sox, Orioles, Rangers and Royals. His fourth season in Kansas City will be his longest run with any club.

• Chen is 20-18 in the National League, 40-40 in the AL. Comments