Home Pro MLB Nightengale: As Ohtani Tries to Make History, a Hand from Pujols Would Help

Nightengale: As Ohtani Tries to Make History, a Hand from Pujols Would Help

Nightengale: As Ohtani Tries to Make History, a Hand from Pujols Would Help
The Angels' Shohei Ohtani poses for photos during his introductory news conference on Saturday in Anaheim, California. Photo: AP

It hasn’t been done in 99 years, and the Los Angeles Angels still are trying to figure out how this will actually work.

Shohei Ohtani, attempting a task last successfully completed by Babe Ruth, is vying to to be a starting pitcher every sixth day and in the lineup as a designated hitter most of the others.

He did it in Japan, and now is seeing if he can possibly pull it off in the big leagues.

Yet, to make this work, trying to juggle his pitching routine with his batting practice regiment, there’s an X factor involved.

He’s the future Hall of Famer across the clubhouse.

When he was Ohtani’s age at 23, he hit .359 with 43 homers, 124 RBI and led the league with 212 hits, 51 doubles and 137 runs.

His name is Albert Pujols, who’s now 38.

You see, if Ohtani is going to be the Angels’ DH on the days he doesn’t pitch, he needs Pujols to play first base.

And Pujols, the Angels’ primary DH the last two years, played just six games at first base in 2017, and just 28 the year before.

“I don’t know what’s going on,’’ Pujols tells USA TODAY Sports. “Nobody has told me anything about it. I really don’t know what the whole plan is.

“I just know that I’m here. And my job is to put the uniform on and play. We’ll see what they want me to do.’’

While no one may have laid out the specifics to Pujols, likely because the Angels themselves aren’t quite sure how this will all work, he realizes change is needed to accommodate Ohtani.

Pujols is going to have play first base at least three or four times a week, perhaps as many as 100 games at first for the first time since 2014. The Angels can’t afford to have him be an exclusive DH.

“I get myself ready every year to play first base,’’ Pujols says, “so I don’t know why everybody is making such a big deal about it. People are making it out like I have to learn how to play that position. It’s silly.

“First base is like riding a bike. You don’t have to ride it every day. You can go 20 years without riding it, and first time you might get on it might feel weird, but it comes back.”

Pujols, a two-time Gold Glove winner at first base while with the St. Louis Cardinals, craves a return to the position. For the first time in four years, he had a healthy off-season where he could work out, instead of rehab from surgeries. He showed up to the Angels’ spring training camp 15 to 17 pounds lighter, and no longer looks as if he’s in pain every time he takes a step, battling plantar fascia and knee problems.

 “I just couldn’t train the way I wanted to the last few years, coming off surgery,’’ Pujols says. “Now, there’s no limit. Obviously, cutting off some weight helped a lot, too.’’

Says Angels starter Garrett Richards: “He looks like he shed years off his life. He finally had a full off-season and it shows. He looks so good in the box, too.’’

Pujols led the Angels with 101 RBI last season, but posted career lows in batting average (.241)) and on base plus slugging (.647). It was a remarkable decline for a man with a career .305 batting average and .947 OPS. He believes that playing the field again will reinvigorate his offensive skills.

“I missed first base, man,’’ Pujols said, “I tell you that. When I’m out there, I’m much more in the game. I don’t have to think about my at-bats. I can play defense and separate that from the offense. I’ll be able to enjoy it more.

“I feel like I could still go out there one or two more years and do that, maybe even for my whole contract, who knows.’’

Pujols, in Year 7 of his 10-year, $240 million contract, hit his 600th homer last year, with more milestones ahead. He’s 32 hits shy of becoming the 32nd player in history to reach 3,000, which triggers a $3 million bonus in his contract. He’s 82 RBI shy of becoming only the fourth player to reach 2,000, and with 614 homers, still has a shot of joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in the 700-homer club.

Why, by the end of the season, he and Aaron may be the only players in history to have 3,000 hits, 2,000 RBI and at least 600 homers.

 “I think getting 3,000 hits would mean the most as far as individual numbers,’’ Pujols says, “but 2,000 RBI is pretty close. That’s pretty special.

“There was somebody who wrote an article last year that said RBI doesn’t mean anything. I was like, “Are you freaking kidding me?’ It doesn’t make sense. If you don’t drive in runs, you don’t win games.

“It’s not seeing who has the highest WAR or exit velocity. You have to drive in runs and score runs. That’s how you win games.’’

The Angels figure to be winning a whole lot of games this year, believing they’ll be serious contenders with hopes of winning their first playoff game in nine years. They’ve got the finest defensive team in baseball, a loaded offense with the acquisitions of Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler, the best player in the game in Mike Trout, a healthy pitching staff, and, yes, Ohtani.

The Angels plan to use a six-man rotation with Ohtani, but the number of games he’ll also DH will depend on Pujols. If Pujols says healthy and can play first base with no problems, Ohtani might find himself at DH more than anyone envisioned.

“When the season opens up, we’ll look very closely at it,’’ Angels manager Mike Scioscia says. “There is a lot of effort a pitcher has to put into pitching, and obviously it might erode some of the opportunities he has to hit. If it comes down to where he is pitching in a day, and he is not going to hit the day before, so be it. If a day after, he is not available, so be it.

“But I think we need to be flexible as we go through this to work this out.’’

It’s not just Ohtani’s response to the workload that will dictate his playing time at DH, but also how Pujols reacts being back at first base.

“He can play first base enough for us to have some flexibility in our lineups,’’ Scioscia says, “and give us more options on any day.’’

Maybe, even that long-awaited deep run into October, too, that Pujols has desperately missed since leaving the Cardinals.

 “There’s no need for me to put pressure on myself, or anyone to do that,’’ said Pujols, who plans to make a conscious effort to draw more walks after walking a career-low 37 times last year. “If we just stay healthy, and have the year we can, we’re going to do some great things.

“This year could be really special.’’

Call it a two-for-one.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.


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