Hamilton showing signs of delivering what Angels need
As comfort level rises, outfielder confident production will increase
ANAHEIM -- As Josh Hamilton becomes more comfortable with his new environment in the Angel Stadium home clubhouse, he figures he'll begin to emerge as the type of player the Angels hoped they were getting when they signed him this past winter to a five-year, $125 million contract.
Players are creatures of habit, you see, and finding the space and rhythm off the field can create the right mental conditions to produce on it.
"Of course, there's always an adjustment," Hamilton, who left his comfort zone with the Rangers to sign as a free agent, said on Sunday. "You go to Spring Training and you think you're adjusted and then you make another move. You had to bring the family to L.A., had to get settled in and get in a routine as far as finding where things are around the stadium.
"How to park here and get there and walk here. It's just a process. It's been good to get into routine, like you said."
Hamilton, of course, is shackled with the added complications of his well-documented personal addictions. Coping with all that has to be different after surviving -- with a few glitches -- five largely successful years playing for the Rangers.
"I'm good, I'm really good," Hamilton said when asked about the support system in a new city. "That travels with me."
All this was germane on Sunday after Hamilton lofted a two-run, eighth-inning homer just to the left of the rock pile in center field that gave his new club enough of a cushion to defeat the Astros, 4-1.
Hamilton also added an infield single and a triple, giving him his second three-hit game in the 12 he has played with the Angels. He has five hits total in the other 10 games.
Despite winning back-to-back contests for the first time this season, at 4-8, the Angels aren't where they want to be right now, matching their rough start of the 2012 season. And Angels fans know how that turned out.
The big difference, though, from a year ago when the Angels spent the entire season trying with no avail to dig out of a 7-15 hole, is that this April they have Hamilton and Mike Trout, who was in the Minors and wasn't elevated to the big club last year until April 28. That's when the Angels began turning around their season and Trout, who hit his first homer of 2013 on Sunday, went on to be named American League Rookie of the Year.
Much worse than Hamilton's .238 start with two homers and eight RBIs, Albert Pujols suffered through the dregs last year after he left the Cardinals and signed a 10-year, $240 million deal. Prince Albert had a nightmarish month of April, batting .217 with no homers and four RBIs as he carried the weight of the club and that contract on his shoulders.
"It was six weeks and three days," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, declining to break the Pujols slump down to the hours and the minutes. "It was long and it was tough. Albert, I think, had a little more on his plate changing leagues. Josh is familiar with the lion's share of the pitchers we're going to face. Albert wasn't. He came over cold turkey and Albert was trying to do what he did in St. Louis and put the team on his back and keep going. That was detrimental and he realizes it. That's why you're seeing Albert more disciplined and getting off to a much better start this year. He doesn't have to carry the whole club."
This year, Pujols is batting .293 with two homers and seven RBIs, but he has different problems coming off knee surgery and dealing with plantar fasciitis, painful inflammation on the sole of his left foot.
In the hours before Sunday's game, Scioscia adjusted the Los Angeles batting order, moving Pujols from first base to designated hitter to take stress off the foot. Pujols went 0-for-4 and could barely run down to first base on a pair of ground balls.
Scioscia stopped short of saying the 33-year-old Pujols had been told to take it easy running out infield grounders.
"You know, Albert's going to give you what he has," Scioscia said. "If he has 70 percent, he's going to give you 70 percent. That's where he is right now, whatever percentage you want to put on it. Obviously, he's not 100 percent."
To be sure, the Angels had much bigger issues last year at this time than Pujols' seeming endless slump. The bullpen was a mess. Five days after Trout was called up from the Minors, the Angels obtained Ernesto Frieri in a trade with Padres.
Frieri, a heretofore 24-year-old unheralded middle-inning reliever, emerged as the closer, saving 23 games. Frieri turned over a four-out save to secure Sunday's win by striking out four out of five batters. And with free-agent signee Ryan Madson recovering from Tommy John surgery and throwing freely in bullpen sessions, the relief corps seems to be in good shape.
This year, the starting pitching has been problematic. Even with C.J. Wilson's win and six innings of one-run, five-hit ball on Sunday, Angels starters are ranked 27th out of the 30 Major League teams with a 2-5 record and 5.59 ERA. Jered Weaver being out from four to six weeks because of an elbow injury certainly hasn't helped matters.
"We're struggling to find that flow of our rotation," Scioscia said. "We're not getting the length or the effectiveness we need."
At this point, Hamilton may be the least of his problems. At 31, he's physically healthy and mentally hardy. Unlike Pujols, he doesn't seem like a man carrying the weight of the team and a big contract on his back. The off-field stuff out of the way, he figures he will hit.
"Come on, what has it been, only  games?" he said. "I'm coming around. I feel the same as I have for the last week. I'm just getting hits now."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.