Now this is what Arte Moreno signed up for. With Saturday night’s home run against the White Sox, that’s six home runs in five games in five days off the bat of Albert Pujols. And all of them hit against the Rangers and White Sox, both potential playoff rivals. Better than any playbook, that’s exactly what the Angels ordered when Moreno shelled out $240 million to import Albert to the left coast last winter.
Say what you will about the big picture, but at some fundamental level that money wasn’t about rebranding a ballclub. It was not about telegraphing seriousness or an intent to contend. It was not about whatever meta-messaging you might have wanted to invest signing Pujols with. Gargantuan expense was supposed to generate gargantuan power, and since that ugly, homer-free initial 27-game introduction to Angels fans, Pujols has delivered, slugging .629 with 24 home runs through Saturday night.
So for all those who doubted that Albert Pujols was going to be Albert Pujols, shame on you. To think that somehow the burden of on-demand greatness in Southern California was supposed to crush the man who will redefine all-time excellence at first base? Perish the thought. And all you folks worried overmuch about that slow start, shame on you.
To bring things back to the big picture, though, the question is whether the Angels will live up to the billing they earn as we head toward the stretch. Much like the Yankees or Rangers, the Angels’ cast of characters seems like a made-to-order highlight reel, a guaranteed collection of show-stopping entertainments. Perhaps nobody was seen as more automatic than Albert Pujols himself, but he’s not alone. When he isn’t conjuring up conversations over whether he should be compared to Fred Lynn or Willie Mays or both, Mike Trout seems to reinvent the definition of what a Web Gem ought to be on a nightly basis. Mark Trumbo is making everyone who doubted his Rookie of the Year worthiness last season eat that skepticism. And every fifth day, Jered Weaver takes his shot at mowing down any team, any lineup, any batter with the relentlessness of an animatronic strike machine.
The question is whether all that highlight material and all that star power adds up to a team that can catch the Rangers in the American League West, or whether it will have to take its chances in the one-and-done wild-card play-in at season’s end. We’re probably all aware that determining the American League’s playoff field is going to be brutal. Say we swap in the Red Sox for the Orioles because you think they’ll be strong while the injury-riddled O’s fade. That means we’re talking about eight contenders in the AL. Maybe the league-leading Rangers and Yankees come back to the pack, maybe they don’t.
That still leaves a six-team pack the Angels need to separate themselves from. Guess what? Thirty-six of the Angels’ last 54 games are against American League contenders. Not even the consolation of facing the Mariners in six of their final nine games can help much -- if the Angels are going to make a move, it has to be in the next month.
As much as seeing their “name” players shine is cause for highlight-related fun, the less happy fact of the past week is how badly Angels pitching has been clouted in the Weaver-free ballgames. Even including Weaver’s shutting down Texas on July 31, the Halos been hammered in their five games before Saturday’s action, allowing 44 runs in 44 2/3 IP against the Rangers and White Sox, including 64 hits (10 of them homers). That won’t fly in October, not for long.
What those drubbings indicate to me is two things, or one big interrelated thing, which is a problem on pitching and defense. It’s easy to pick on Ervin Santana’s schizophrenic failures or Dan Haren’s struggles, just as it’s easy to suggest that Zack Greinke will fix things because he’s being swapped in for merely adequate fifth-starter material in Jerome Williams or Garrett Richards -- or maybe Santana.
But whether Richards replaces Santana as the starter behind Door No. 5 loses sight of the problem that everyone’s had to work with over the past two weeks, which is the absence of shortstop Erick Aybar on defense. Relying on Maicer Izturis and Andrew Romine doesn’t seem all that coincidental with the sudden outpouring of base hits dropping in against Angels’ pitching, at least not where advanced defensive metrics have Izturis’ work at short. And if Aybar is back in time to play against the Oakland Athletics in the three-game series that starts Monday, that’s a little bit of help from someone beyond those better Angels who might pick everybody up.
Getting help from players beyond the famous people is going to be crucial for the Angels down the stretch in other ways as well. It can show up in something as simple as seeing Howard Kendrick plate Alberto Callaspo with the winning run in the top of the 10th against the White Sox. Not Pujols, not Trout, not Trumbo, but Kendrick, and not with some feat of strength that you’ll still be talking about at work in the break room on Monday.
Better was expected from Callaspo and Kendrick and more beside. While their seasonal slumps didn’t get the same attention as Pujols, breaking them for keeps will make a big difference -- perhaps not as noisily as Pujols’, but significantly. Callaspo, Kendrick and Izturis have all done better than the struggle that each has endured this season to post an OPS above .700. Seeing better work from all of them down the stretch should happen, in the same way that a healthy Aybar should make a difference on defense. Getting Chris Iannetta back from the disabled list isn’t going to set headlines ablaze, but it should repair a slot in the Angels’ lineup that has been dead for months. And if Torii Hunter keeps on keeping on …
Which is why you can believe in Angels, because just as a team is more than the sum of its stars, there are plenty of reason to expect improvement down the stretch. Not just because of the big names or the highlights, but because of some of the other guys who should do better, in part because they couldn’t do much worse. If they do that just as the Halos’ schedule turns fearsome, who knows, there could be credit to go around -- to names small as well as big.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.